Board reaches deal on water rights

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In the city's quest to file for recreational water rights, the Upper Yampa Water Conservation Board is willing to support three more tributaries on which the city could file.

The compromise, extended by secretary and manager of the board John Fetcher, was an effort to avoid a potential lawsuit that could come if the city filed for a recreational in-channel diversion on the main body of the Yampa River.

"I would like to advise all of you, if you file for a recreational right, you are in for a bumpy and expensive ride," Fetcher told the council Tuesday night. "The Upper Yampa District will oppose you, depending somewhat on how much water you want and when you want it."

In the past, the board said it would be in support of the city filing for a recreational water right if it limited its claim to just five tributaries -- Walton Creek, Fish Creek, Spring Creek, Soda Creek and Butcher Knife.

Fetcher told the council that the board would be willing to include three more tributaries it would support -- Service Creek, Green Creek and Harrison Creek.

Those tributaries all flow into the Yampa River after it passes through the towns of Yampa and Oak Creek and Stagecoach Reservoir. Fetcher also said the creeks largely are under appropriated.

"If this could be worked out between the city and the district, it would save a heck of a lot of money and time," Fetcher said.

Fetcher made the offer during the public comment section of Tuesday's meeting. On Dec. 16, the city is scheduled to vote on a resolution to file for a recreational in channel diversion. The city has yet to answer whether the water right would be on the whole of the Yampa River or just tributaries and how much water it is requesting.

City staff has questioned whether filing on just the five tributaries would provide the amount of water needed to sustain the recreational activities on the river and whether it would be legal.

Instructed by water attorney Glenn Porzak, the council has talked little with upstream communities, ranchers or other water users. It had talked with the Upper Yampa District.

The council agreed to go into executive session at its Dec. 16 meeting before voting on filing for a recreational in-channel diversion.

Council has supported recreational water rights because of its potential to preserve flows in the Yampa as it goes through downtown Steamboat, where the city has spent more than $100,000 in river improvements.

Supporters of recreational water rights also say it is a way to sustain river activities for fly fishing, tubing and kayaking, even when future development farther up the river calls for more water.

Upstream users fear a recreational water right could place an immediate call on the river, limit future growth and could cost thousands of dollars in legal fees.

South Routt rancher and water attorney Mike Holloran told the council it could cost South Routt landowners money in lawsuits and urged the council to be creative and considerate when filing.

Bob Weiss, attorney for the towns of Yampa and Oak Creek, asked that the city talk to these communities before filing.

"The South Routt neighbors have been ignored," Weiss said. "This is going to precipitate an enormous expense on all sides, which might have been avoided. It doesn't seem consistent with your normal practices."

Councilman Ken Brenner, who heard similar concerns at a water rights meeting Monday, said he was confident those concerns would be addressed.

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