Yampa River is placed on call for 1st time ever

The Yampa River flows through Dinosaur National Monument around Aug. 18. Low flows in the lower stretch of the river led water managers to curtail some use of water from the river. (courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For the first time, water users on the main stem of the Yampa River have been curtailed.

Due to low water conditions in the lower stretch of the river near Dinosaur National Monument, the Colorado Division of Water Resources placed a call on the river Tuesday. The call applies to water users upstream from the river’s lowest diversion point, which essentially places the entire river on call.

“We are now faced again with the Yampa River being extremely low at its lower end, and we are unable to both protect the Endangered Fishes Recovery Program reservoir water and allow all water users to continue to divert water,” Erin Light, the area division engineer, wrote in an email to water users in the Yampa River Basin on Wednesday morning.

The Division of Water Resources places a call on a stream when water rights owners do not receive the amount of water they have a legal right to. When a call is in place, some water users are forced to reduce or stop their use in order to send enough water downstream to fulfill the older water right.

A call was placed on the river on Aug. 22, but its implementation was delayed.

By the numbers

Yampa River flows at noon Wednesday, Sept. 5:
Steamboat Springs: 62.3 cubic feet per second
Above Elkhead Creek near Hayden: 61.3 cfs
Below Craig: 114 cfs
Near Maybell: 61.4 cfs
Deerlodge Park: 19.3 cfs

“A lot of water users are being affected,” Light said. “There are certain drainages where water users don’t have any measuring device at all, and that’s what we started shutting off (Tuesday).”

These users — the ones who aren’t measuring how much water they’re diverting — were the first to be shut off. On the main stem of the river, these devices are required to ensure that released reservoir water makes it to the user who purchased it.

“Personally, I believe it’s a good thing,” said Doug Monger of the call. “Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a good thing. It’s a day of reckoning.”

Monger is a Routt County commissioner and the county’s representative on the Colorado River District board of directors.

“We need to get into the current century somehow,” Monger said. “Heck, we haven’t had measuring devices on our ditches. It’s a free river. You just use all you want. There’s a whole new accountability coming down with the drought and the 19-year lowest cycle of (the Colorado) River right now.”

Monger said right now the Colorado River has the lowest amount of water flowing downstream in recorded history.

Low water in the Colorado is important to water managers in the Yampa River Basin because the Yampa is one of the Colorado River’s major tributaries. This year, about 52 percent of the water flowing out of the state of Colorado into Lake Powell came from the Yampa, White and Green river basins.

On a 10-year rolling acreage, the state of Colorado must send a set amount of water to Lake Powell for use by Arizona, California, Nevada and portions of Utah and New Mexico under the Colorado River Compact of 1922. If Colorado does not meet its obligation, a compact call would be administered.

No precedent exists for a compact call, so it is unclear how water managers would decide whose water would be curtailed statewide.

On the Yampa, any user who has a water right decreed after Sept. 16, 1951, will be curtailed. Light said it is likely the Division of Water Resources will change this to an earlier date depending on river conditions.

Water users on the Yampa’s tributaries who do not have a measuring device and proper head gate — the gate that regulates the flow of water entering an irrigation system — will be shut off, regardless of how old their water right is. All water users who do not have a formal court-decreed water right will also be curtailed.

Water commissioners are currently visiting head gates to determine if water users can divert water. Those that have water rights filed after the priority date and those that don’t have a measuring device will be shut and tagged with a notice explaining the situation to the water rights holder.

Some of the city of Steamboat Springs’ water rights will be shut off. City water customers will not notice a change in service, as the city will purchase reservoir water from Stagecoach Reservoir to augment water from the Yampa.

“Fortunately, the city has planned for this day, and we have an augmentation plan in place,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for Steamboat Springs. “We’ve arranged our water rights portfolio, so that we’ll be able to continue to use water to supply our customers and irrigate our parks.”

Both Hayden and Craig have older water rights and likely will not see curtailment, Light said. Tri-State Generation and Transmission will pay to release water to keep up energy generation at Craig Station with releases from Elkhead and Stagecoach reservoirs.

“Just because one has a water right, doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily water available for that right,” Romero-Heaney said. “The river has never operated in a way to account for that, so we’ll learn a lot about all of our water rights portfolios after this year.”

Light said much of the water that’s being diverted is being put to use to water fall pastures for cattle and sheep. Flows could improve as some water users decide to stop irrigating for the year, she said.

Rainfall could help put more flows in the river, she added, and cool temperatures could slow down plants’ consumption of Yampa water.

“When we see the willows and everything start to die off for the year, you will notice we see more water in the river,” Light said.

These conditions could allow the Division of Water Resources to lift the call or allow users with newer water rights to divert water.

“There’s a whole new responsibility for everybody, including the ranchers, including households, golf courses, municipalities, consumers,” Monger said. “Everybody needs to do a better job doing what we’re doing, and there’s going to be an uptick in accountability of it.”

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.

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