Steamboat Springs The summer's drought reached historic dimensions Thursday when commissioners from the State Department of Water Resources office in Steamboat Springs shut down six irrigation ditches on the main stem of the Yampa River.
The step was taken to ensure a downstream power plant received the water it was entitled to.
Technically speaking, this marks the first time there has been a "call" for water rights on the main stem of the Yampa River, Bob Plaska said. He is the Division Six state water engineer, overseeing the Yampa, Elk, White and North Platte rivers.
"We have started to curtail diversion below Stagecoach to deliver reservoir releases to Tri-State (coal-fired power plant in Craig)," Plaska said. "Some people don't like the idea, but overall, they've been understanding. They realize it's a dry year. We're trying to be fair about this."
Longtime local rancher Vernon Summer, who irrigates about 100 acres of meadow in the flat valley upstream from Steamboat Springs, said his senior rights from the Baxter Ditch were cut off. But he's relatively unconcerned.
"We were about ready to shut it off anyway," Summer said. "After Aug. 15, the growing season is really over. It didn't hurt us a lot."
The Summer Ranch, unlike some others, does not depend on water from the Yampa to water its cattle.
Although this week's action marks the first time in history there has been a water call on the Yampa, Plaska said it's important to make a distinction between a call concerning a release of water stored in reservoirs to a general call on the natural streamflow in the Yampa. The latter would have more far-reaching implications, he said.
This week's action was precipitated when power plant managers asked the Upper Yampa Conservancy District to release water Tri-State owns in Stagecoach Reservoir. The water is used in the power plant's cooling operations.
Plaska said the power plant asked for about 33 cubic feet per second out of Stagecoach and about 20 cfs from Elkhead Reservoir near Craig.
The problem, Plaska said, is that the water hasn't been reaching the power plant downstream.
In response, his office began by calculating the natural streamflow in the Yampa and Elk rivers. The Yampa currently is carrying a natural flow of 30 to 35 cfs, including some return flows from irrigation ditches. The natural flow in the Elk at Clark is 30 to 32 cfs, Plaska said.
The various irrigators are entitled to the natural streamflow, and the water commissioners who work for Plaska assembled a combined list of ditches and the seniority. They began assigning the natural flow to the senior ditches in descending order until it was used up. After that was accomplished, they began informing ditch companies they were going to lose the ability to divert water from the Yampa.
As of Friday morning, Plaska said, the actions of the previous day had not resulted in any additional water reaching the power plant. There was concern about that, and water commissioners were in the field trying to ascertain the reason. There remains the possibility that more ditches will be shut off, he said.
Among the ditches that were cut off from water this week were the Duquette Ditch, Carey Ditch, Gibraltar, Brooks, Brock and Baxter.
Farmers and Ranchers along the Elk River were flooding their hayfields over the weekend and the hay stubble had turned green. They could be the next to be affected, Plaska said. Xcel's power plant in Hayden was not getting the 7-8 cfs it had asked to be released from Steamboat Lake this week.
Colorado State University Extension Agent C.J. Mucklow said the ranchers along the Elk are trying to generate a little grazing pasture for their cattle to get through the fall.
John Fetcher of the Upper Yampa Conservancy District said the current water crisis should ease by Oct. 1. Ranchers will cease irrigating entirely by that date, he predicted.