Water situation not so cut and dry

Conservancy officials remain optimistic over local drought

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— Hay growers in the Yampa Valley have begun irrigating their crops a good three weeks early because of the drought. But as ominous as that sounds, Routt County may have the best water picture in the state.

"That's probably for one good reason," John Fetcher said May 13. "We're at the head of the ditch. The water starts here!"

Fetcher is the secretary manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and oversees water storage in both Stillwater and Yamcolo reservoirs near the headwaters of the Yampa, as well as Stagecoach Reservoir near Oak Creek.

Fetcher doesn't expect those three reservoirs to fill this spring. But things could be worse.

Although the water supply in the Yampa River Basin is well below normal, households, ranches and municipal water users probably don't have much to complain about compared to their counterparts around Colorado.

"If you look at the latest (snowpack) readings, that's true," Bob Plaska said. He is a water engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, based in Steamboat Springs. His office supervises the delivery of irrigation water through the ditches in Northwest Colorado.

In many parts of the state, the water stored in the remaining snowpack ranges from the single digits to low teens in terms of percent of average.

"We're still hanging in there at 21 percent on the Yampa and White river drainages," Plaska said. "The Laramie and North Platte drainages are at 28 percent. Those are the highest numbers in the state.

"That's not a very rosy scenario. It's definitely disconcerting."

Closer to home, Bob Stoddard said based on his calculations, Fish Creek Reservoir, Steamboat's primary municipal water source, should fill this spring, despite a lower than average snowpack on Buffalo Pass.

"Yes, we believe that will easily happen," Stoddard said. "As of (May 15), the reservoir is down 8.5 feet. That converts to about 1,000 acre feet to fill. There is still 24 to 25 inches of snow water equivalent" at the Tower measuring site on Buffalo Pass. That should be sufficient to bring the reservoir to its capacity of 4,167 acre feet of water.

Stoddard is manager of Mount Werner Water and manages Fish Creek Reservoir, which is owned by the city of Steamboat Springs. Of the 4,167 acre feet of water stored in Fish Creek Reservoir when it is full, 1,000 acre feet is reserved for the trout fishery in the impoundment, Stoddard said. The city would have the option of tapping into that reserve if it were willing to restock the trout. Another 200 acre feet is reserved to preserve minimum streamflows in Fish Creek below the reservoir.

Another prominent local reservoir, Steamboat Lake, was full a month ago. The reservoir 30 miles northwest of Steamboat is managed by Steamboat Lake State Park Manager Ken Brink.

The lake is close to the top of a relatively large watershed, and Brink saw an opportunity to offer some of the best fishing and boating in the entire State Park system this summer.

"Steamboat Lake is full, in fact, very full," Brink said. "We kind of made a decision that we were going to fill the lake up good and brim full just in case it is a real long, hot summer like last year. We'll have maybe an extra foot of water just to make up for evaporative loss."

Brink said the high lake level means the park's swimming beach has shrunk a bit, but he thinks having a full lake next to the park's scenic campgrounds will make it very desirable to the public in this drought year.

Nearby Pearl Lake, also a part of the State Park, won't be so fortunate. Fed by Lester Creek, Pearl doesn't drain as large an area as Steamboat Lake. Pearl will show the effects of drought this year, Brink predicted.

Fetcher said the reservoirs on the headwaters of the Yampa in the Flat Tops are still hurting from last summer.

"Last fall we pulled Yamcolo way down," Fetcher said. "This spring, we had to fill the whole bucket."

Although Yamcolo won't fill this summer, Fetcher expects there to be adequate supplies for irrigation.

Another factor could come into play in midsummer. Tri-State Generation has significant storage rights in Stagecoach, Fetcher said. The power plant in Craig uses the water in its cooling towers. The Upper Yampa Conservancy District will "certify" in July whether it has ample supply for water users like Tri-State, which have storage rights.

Plaska said it's significant to know that there has never been an administrative call on water rights on the main stem of the Yampa River. A "call" on water rights comes about when a user with senior rights informs the Division of Water Resources that they aren't able to take their allotment out of the river. That results in the engineers shutting down a more junior user.

The closest the Yampa came to an administrative call was in the record drought year of 1977.

"It was a pretty tough time," Plaska said. Records show that in late summer, the Yampa at the bridge upstream from Maybell was carrying only 4 cubic feet per second (the river fluctuated around 700 to 800 cfs last week in Steamboat Springs).

"As wide as the channel is at Maybell, that must have looked like a trickle," Plaska said.

There are no minimum streamflow regulations in place on the main stem of the Yampa, Plaska said.

Local water managers will watch the river closely this summer, but with snowpack dwindling rapidly, summer rainfall may be the only remedy for partially full reservoirs and streams that have been reduced to a trickle.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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