Filing a recreational water right has the potential to over-appropriate the main stem of the Yampa River, water attorney Tom Sharp said.
Sharp told an audience of more than two dozen people Monday night that if the city files for a recreational in-channel diversion, it could have a negative impact on upstream municipalities, ranchers and other water users.
Sharp, who sits on the Upper Yampa Water Conservation Board, spoke Monday at a meeting organized by the Routt County Board of Commissioners to gather more information on the impacts a city recreational water right would have on the rest of the county.
Because a call never has been placed on the main stem of the Yampa, Sharp said, the river is unlike any other in Colorado. Routt County is lucky, he said.
"In an area that is over-appropriated, it becomes significantly more complex, significantly more expensive. There are significantly more engineers and significantly more attorneys," he said.
Even in 2002, during one of the worst droughts in a hundred years, Sharp said potential calls existed with the city of Craig and a irrigation ditch in Maybell, but Sharp said entities worked together to make sure those calls were averted.
The amount of water flowing through the Yampa River in 2002 would not have met the city's recommended recreational flow, Sharp said, meaning that if the proposed in-channel diversion existed then, the city could have put a call on the river.
Having a call on the river, or even having a state rule that it is over-appropriated, could have significant impacts on upstream users, Sharp said.
"This is really more of a control issue than a providing-wet-water issue," Sharp said.
One of the largest changes, if the river is deemed over-appropriated, is that municipalities would have more problems developing water storage projects, he said.
If a river is over-appropriated, the state also requires an augmentation plan for developments that have wells and requires those diverting water to make sure they have the correct equipment to monitor the water they are taking. And changing a use of a water right could place it junior to the city's claim, Sharp said.
One South Routt rancher, Dean Rossi, said if the river does become over-appropriated, he would have to install boxes to measure the water he was taking.
"For a lot of us, that is going to be expensive," Rossi said.
Ted Kowalski, from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, also spoke at Monday's meeting.
Recent state legislation requires the state board to make a recommendation to the water court on all recreational in-channel diversions filed.
Kowalski said the board takes seriously the wording in Senate Bill 216 that says the water right should provide "minimum flow for a reasonable recreational experience." Kowalski said the state board opposed cases such as Golden's, where requests for flows were higher than the average flow for that time of year.
"Really what the General Assembly wanted was to keep one entity from having a monopoly on upstream development," Kowalski said.
City Council members Kathy Connell and Ken Brenner attended Monday's meeting, but said little.
They had been advised by the city's water attorney to attend the meeting and listen, but not actively participate.
On Dec. 16, the city is scheduled to vote on a resolution to file for a recreational in-channel diversion.
Some asked whether the city could build more water storage to avoid the need for a recreational water right or whether the recreational water rights could be subordinate to the future municipal water needs upstream.
Others suggested the city work with those who could be impacted before filing for a water right and develop a more regional plan.
Kowalski also talked of the tremendous tax burden of filing for a recreational water right. With cases such as Golden, Vail and Breckenridge, it cost taxpayers money from all sides to fight it. Some municipalities have spent as much as $200,000, he said.
"It is a lot better for the taxpayer for the entities to work together to come to a consensus," Kowalski said.
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