Water lease could float Yampa River through drought
June 25, 2012
Steamboat Springs — There is relief in sight for the Yampa River where current flows through downtown Steamboat Springs are a relative trickle compared to what is normal for the last week in June.
Two water agencies and a conservation organization have engineered a lease allowing 4,000-acre feet of cold water from Stagecoach Reservoir to be gradually released in an effort to revive the river.
The Colorado Water Trust announced Monday it had reached an agreement with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns the reservoir, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to lease the water and send it downstream.
"We'll start making releases when we can ensure it will supply the benefit we hope it will," Colorado Water Trust staff attorney Zach Smith said.
His organization will spend $35 per acre-foot to lease the water from Stagecoach, or about $140,000, Smith confirmed. The agreement marks the first-ever implementation of a 2003 statute designed to protect Colorado's rivers in times of drought.
If the Trust were to release the water steadily, it is estimated it would generate a flow of about 26.5 cubic feet per second from July 1 through the middle of September — perhaps not enough to restore recreation in the form of tubing on the town stretch of the river, but enough to protect the resource. The Yampa was flowing at 69 cfs late Monday afternoon compared to a median flow for the date of 1,000 cfs.
As a practical matter, it remains to be seen how much of that water actually completes the seven-mile run from Lake Catamount, which is a few miles below Stagecoach, to Steamboat Springs without it being diverted.
Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District General Manager Kevin McBride said Monday that he's confident the water can be shepherded between the two reservoirs, but below Stagecoach, its delivery becomes less certain. The Water Conservation Board holds the in-stream flow right between Stagecoach and Catamount.
Smith said there is likely to be an ongoing discussion among the Trust, the Conservancy District, the Conservation Board, Division 6 State Water Engineer Erin Light and local partners like the city of Steamboat Springs about the best strategic use of the water through the summer.
"What the district is trying to do is that we'd like to see multiple uses made of the water," McBride said. "Our board is working within its limitations. The primary thing for the district has been to conserve water. That means storing it for later use. Thankfully, the district had the foresight to build upstream storage."
Smith said Monday that the state law enabling the water lease requires that people who have signed on to a Substitute Water Supply Plan Notification List be given 15 days to comment on the plan.
In the meantime, Smith said the Trust is working on an alternative that allows it to call for the release of a portion of the water before it's approved under the statute and feel confident that it would make it to Steamboat and beyond. That would result from subleasing or remarketing it to an existing decreed water user farther downstream who isn't getting all of the water they are entitled to.
The Trust is in negotiations to re-market the leased water to just such a party, Smith said. That would enable Light to take steps to ensure that the water reached its intended user and in the process elevate flows in a longer stretch of the river, he said.
The Trust announced in April that it was prepared to spend up to $400,000 to help to keep water in as many as 20 rivers statewide.
"The program is totally market based," Amy Beatie, executive director of the Trust, said at the time. "We're not going to ask anybody for a handout. Putting up hay has an economic benefit; we want to pay them cash instead. In essence, we're proposing to pay people to grow water for fish."
On Monday, she praised the Upper Yampa Conservation District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board for their enterprising and thoughtful approaches to putting the lease together.