Irrigators receive reprieve

Ranchers will not have to stop using Elk River's water


— Rain showers Sunday forestalled the need to cut off more irrigation ditches on the Elk River northwest of Steamboat Springs.

"We had a couple of curtailments over the weekend on the Elk (River)," said Bob Plaska, the state water engineer based in Steamboat. "Now, we've decided we're going to wait and see what happens."

Plaska's Division Six office oversees water rights on the Elk, Yampa, Rio Blanco and North Platte rivers.

Plaska said his office cut the flow of water to a pair of ditches on the Elk over the weekend.

The step was necessary because water from Steamboat Lake wasn't making it downstream to Xcel Energy's coal-fired electrical generating plant near Hayden.

The company uses water it owns in Steamboat Lake in its cooling towers.

Ranchers up and down the Elk River Valley were flooding the hay stubble in their fields over Labor Day weekend to create pasture for their cattle.

Some of the water intended for the power utility was going onto those fields.

On Thursday, Plaska's office curtailed water from six ditches on the main stem of the Yampa.

That action was taken to ensure water released from Stagecoach Reservoir would make it all the way to Craig for use by Tri-State Generation's power plant.

The curtailments marked the first time a call on water has ever gone into effect on the main stem of the Yampa.

Plaska said the ditch closures worked. "It definitely produced the kind of water we needed to get down to Tri-State."

Rancher Doug Carlson said he was informed Sunday he might be deprived of some of the water he collects from three ditches on the Elk to irrigate his fields.

Carlson, who has a herd of 150 cow/calf pairs in the upper Elk River Valley, welcomed the rain that kept his ditches flowing.

For the time being, Carlson said the moisture helped relieve pressure to irrigate the hay stubble to create feed for the cattle. He has cut back on irrigating accordingly.

The new growth in the hay fields is important to his operation this year, Carlson said. Parched by a summer-long drought, his dryland pasture doesn't afford adequate nutrition for his cattle.

The green hay stubble represents a way to get his cattle through the autumn.

"We really try not to start feeding (baled hay) until snow is on the fields," Carlson said. "To start earlier it would be difficult."

Carlson said the economics of the cattle industry preclude purchasing hay over and above what he grows on the ranch.

If he had to begin feeding baled hay this early in what could be a long winter, he likely will have to sell livestock prematurely.

Plaska is optimistic conditions are improving.

He said the willows and cottonwoods along the riverbank have begun to turn golden, a sign that they are about ready to go dormant for the winter.

"Willows and cottonwoods take a tremendous amount of water," Plaska said. "We ought to see the natural streamflow increase and in some cases, that could be substantial."

As that happens, Plaska said his office would look for opportunities to restore access to the water for irrigators whose ditches have been curtailed.

The combined effect of the enforced reduction in irrigation and the two-tenths of an inch of rain that fell Sunday showed up quickly in streamflow measurements taken by the Meeker Field Office of the U.S. Geological Service.

The streamflow in the Yampa at the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat rose to a high of 70 cubic feet per second in the early morning hours Monday.

That compares to daily highs of about 40 cfs in the days prior to the curtailments. The Elk also came up Sunday over Monday, with a peak flow on Monday of 30 CFS where the river empties into the Yampa near Milner.

That compared to readings as low as 3.5 cfs as recently as Thursday.

The mean average streamflow for the Elk at Milner on this date is about 95 cfs.

That statistic is based upon 32 years of records.

The records for the Yampa at Fifth Street go back 92 years.

The mean flow for this date is 107 cfs.

Monday's peak of 70 cfs represents the closest the Yampa has been to its statistical mean all spring and summer.

Plaska said the measuring station at Fifth Street is misleading because it goes through daily peaks and valleys that swing by as much as 20 cfs.


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