Yampa River placed on call for only 2nd time in history amid 20-year drought

Water users along the main stretch of the Yampa River must curb or stop their water usage after the Colorado Division of Water Resources placed both the Yampa and Bear rivers on call as of Wednesday.
File photo/Matt Stensland

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For only the second time ever, the main stretch of the Yampa River is under water usage restrictions as of Wednesday.

The move comes as a lack of flow in the lower portion of the river near Dinosaur National Monument means certain water users are not receiving their legally protected shares. The Division of Water Resources placed a call that applies to all water users upstream of the lowest diversion point, effectively placing the entire river on call. 

“Once again, the structures located at the bottom of the system do not have enough natural flow to meet their diversion demands,” Erin Light, division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said in an announcement about the call.

In addition to protecting senior water rights, the restrictions conserve water released from Elkhead Reservoir in order to protect endangered fish species, according to Light.

Under the call, any water user along the Yampa River who has a water right decreed after Sept. 1, 1960, will have to curtail their usage. Water commissioners are in the process of visiting head gates along the Yampa to determine if water can continue to divert flows, according to Light.

Those who do not have a measuring device and proper head gate to regulate the flow of water into an irrigation system must stop their usage, regardless of the seniority of their rights. State officials have been working to ensure rights holders install these devices. 

The call will shut off some of the city of Steamboat Springs’ water rights, but customers will not notice any changes in service, said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city. This is because the city can purchase stored water from Stagecoach Reservoir under an augmentation plan for drinking supplies and the irrigation of parks.

“We are really well prepared for a water call on the Yampa,” Romero-Heaney said of Steamboat’s water supplies. “For us, we don’t see an interruption to service.”

The last and only other time the main stem of the Yampa went on call was in 2018. At the time, Tri-State Generation and Transmission also paid to release water from Stagecoach Reservoir to maintain energy generation at the Craig Station. Because the company no longer has a contract to release water from Stagecoach, it is relying on water from Elkhead Reservoir. This means Steamboat will not see the benefits to those releases like it did in 2018, Romero-Heaney pointed out.

The Division of Water Resources typically implements a call on a waterway when senior water rights owners do not get the amount of water in their legal allotment. The call forces junior water rights holders to reduce or stop their use of water to send sufficient flows downstream.

Elsewhere, the practice is more commonplace. The Bear River below Stagecoach Reservoir has been on call for months, as usually happens every year, according to water administration data.

All of Routt County is experiencing a shortage of water, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The northern part of the county is under moderate drought conditions, and the southern portion is under severe drought conditions. For the first time in eight years, all of Colorado is experiencing some degree of abnormally dry conditions, according to the monitor.

Much of Colorado is suffering from a 20-year drought that some experts are calling “the new normal.” At the same time, demand on river supplies continues to grow, a problem Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger grapples with as a member of multiple water conservation boards. 

“We can’t keep putting straws in the river and expect the river to continue to survive,” he said of the increase in demand.

Monger called stricter administration of the Yampa and other rivers a sign of the times and said he supports it, particularly with a growing population and further development on the horizon.

As he said of the regulations, “We are just trying to figure out how we can all get along here.”

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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