Water rights on table tonight

City Council will decide on resolution to file on whole body of Yampa

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A resolution up for City Council approval tonight would file for water rights on the whole body of the Yampa River and asks for more water than what the Colorado Water Conservation Board approves.

If approved, the resolution most likely would spark a lawsuit from the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and possibly other upstream users.

Tonight's council meeting will begin with an executive session at 4:30 p.m. to discuss recreational water rights. A public discussion on the resolution will follow.

At a Dec. 10 meeting, district secretary and manager John Fetcher said the board would support the city's filing for water rights if it stuck with eight tributaries but vehemently opposed the filing on the whole of the Yampa River.

City Attorney Tony Lettunich said the resolution proposes to file on the whole of the Yampa because the city is concerned the tributaries may not provide the amount of water needed and whether it would even be legal.

The proposed city resolution has a filing for a recreational in-channel diversion from April to October with the highest request being 1700 cubic feet per second from June 1 to 15 and the lowest being 120 cubic feet per second from July 15 to Oct. 31.

The state water board has said a recreational in-channel diversion cannot exceed flows of 350 feet per second.

Chris Wilson, city director of Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services, said the water requests were determined through hydrologists, members of the rivers and trails committee, kayakers and interested commercial businesses in town.

The group believes the request for water is the minimum amount necessary for a reasonable recreational experience; wording water courts look at in deciding to decree recreational water rights.

City staff estimates it could cost between $100,000 to $200,000 in legal fees to obtain a water right. Tonight is the last public meeting before the end of the year, which puts the city under a tight deadline.

The council has expressed intent to file for a water right before the end of 2003 to ensure a 2003 priority date.

At the Dec. 10 meeting, Fetcher told the council if it filed for a recreational water right, the city was in for a bumpy and expensive ride. He said the district would oppose the city.

The district was willing to come to a compromise, Fetcher said, by including three more tributaries on which the city could file and that the district would support.

In the past, the district said it would support and even help fund recreational water rights filed on five tributaries flowing into Steamboat Springs -- Walton Creek, Fish Creek, Spring Creek, Soda Creek and Butcherknife.

On Dec. 10, Fetcher added three more tributaries to that list-- Service Creek, Harrison Creek and Green Creek.

Lettunich said that even with the three additional tributaries, there is no evidence that it would support all the water the city believes it needs to create a "reasonable recreational experience."

He also said there are legal issues with just filing on tributaries and not the whole of the Yampa River.

"To limit the use to tributaries may not be legally valid," he said. "It could even invalidate the city's water right at some point in time."

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

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. County commissioners, upstream municipalities and agricultural users have all asked the city meet with upstream users before filing for recreational water rights.

In every recreational water rights case in the state, Lettunich said the municipality has filed for the right first and then started negotiations with other entities.

The city fully intends to work with upstream users and plans to accommodate concerns about water needs for future development, Lettunich said.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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