Water officials say Yampa River over appropriation not as scary as it sounds, largely affects new wells
Nadine Arroyo has some work to do. The Mariposa Ranch in South Routt County where her family has lived since 1902 is on Cow Creek, a stream fed by snow runoff but one that dries up in the summer.
She has a number of livestock watering tanks, but they all went dry this summer. Arroyo has plans for several wells on the 240-acre ranch to better supply water throughout the year — wells she was unsure would be approved as the Yampa River is in the process of being officially designated over appropriated.
This led Arroyo to a dimly lit exhibit hall at the Routt County Fairgrounds last week, where Division 6 Engineer Erin Light, of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, told her and other landowners what the designation — one that is expected to be approved by State Engineer Kevin Rein — means for them.
“Water is such and important thing right now,” said Arroyo, 79. “It’s critical, especially in the kind of dry years we’ve had.”
In March, Light proposed to consider the Yampa River between its confluence with the Little Snake River in Moffat County and Steamboat Springs over appropriated, which means the water available can no longer meet the demand. Rein could have already made the designation official, but he hasn’t.
“I was not satisfied that you as the water users had gotten all the information you needed,” Rein told a meeting of water users in Craig last week.
The two meetings were held in the heart of where the river would be considered over appropriated and were meant to explain what over appropriation means to water users. In short, water officials said it isn’t as scary as it sounds.
“One of the things that we are trying to help people understand is that while it may seem scary, it’s really the reality for the rest of the state, and everybody else is doing fine,” said Sonja Macys, engineering technician for Division 6.
The Yampa River Basin is one of the few in the state to not already be over appropriated, though some parts have been already. The river has had a call in three of the past four years, stemming from where it meets the Little Snake and meaning that senior water rights holders were not getting the water they are entitled to.
Light said looking at data from the gauging station on the Yampa in Maybell, flows have declined from about 1.35 million acre feet to 1.1 million acre feet over the past 100 years. Demands are also increasing, with about 70 new water right applications each year and more than 600 new wells in the past decade.
But while it might sound like the designation will turn off the tap, it actually has limited affects, and for most people with existing water rights, wells and well permits, it may have almost no effect at all.
The basin being designated over appropriated does not stop people from getting new surface water rights, though junior right holders should understand their water may not be available at all times during the year.
If someone has new junior water rights pulling from the river and a senior rights holder downstream is not getting the proper flow, water officials will shut off the water to the junior holder.
But all ground water is also considered a tributary of the river, meaning wells, in effect, are pulling a water right from a river. The difference is that water officials cannot simply shut off a well because they have a delayed effect on the river, where shutting a diversion off will immediately increase a river’s flow.
“Our water commissioners can go out and shut a head gate off, or they can pull a pump out of the river,” Light said. “That is not the case with wells. … It’s depletions from last month or even two months ago are what are affecting the senior water right holder today.”
The designation doesn’t affect existing well permits, though once over appropriated, modifying these permits may be more difficult.
Where it would have the most effect is on new well permits. Currently, without the designation, someone could apply for a residential well on any size parcel that would serve up to three dwellings, a 1-acre lawn and garden or livestock watering.
Even with the designation, if the parcel is larger than 35 acres, there is no change. When the lot is smaller than 35 acres, the water use is limited to in the home, unless there is a plan to augment water use. New general purpose well permits also would require an augmentation plan, which release water from a reservoir like Stagecoach to replace water sucked up in a well.
“We want to make sure that our senior water right holders, or any water right holders, are protected from continued depletions from wells,” Light said.
“The idea of a plan for augmentation is to replace those depletions to make sure that the system stays whole.”
After the meeting in Hayden, Arroyo said she was relieved to find out that where her ranch is isn’t being considered for over appropriation, and she likely wouldn’t have much trouble getting the well permits she needs. Even if she gets the wells in, she is praying for snow, even if she isn’t very fond of it.
“I’ve dealt with snow all my life, but this year is the first year that I’m saying we need some,” Arroyo said. “We really do.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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