Yampa River under scrutiny

River produces more water than people are using

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— The surge of snowmelt that coursed down the Yampa River last weekend made news in Steamboat Springs and did not go unheeded by water managers in Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California. The Yampa carries more uncommitted water than any other river in Colorado.

As the arid intermountain West waits for drought-depleted reservoirs to be replenished, it's natural that the Yampa would come under more scrutiny.

"The Yampa is an unusual river system," Tom Sharp said. "It's unusual because it has more water than people are using."

Sharp was speaking to a gathering of about 60 people attending the Yampa River Basin Water Forum, held Thursday at Olympian Hall. Sharp, a local attorney, holds posts on several boards that oversee water in this part of the West. He is a director on the Colorado River Water Conservation District, vice chairman of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy district and chairman of the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority.

The amount of water produced by the Yampa River annually is about 1.2 million acre feet, Sharp said. The consumptive use in Northwest Colorado is just one-tenth of that, or about 120,000 acre feet.

It's a condition Sharp would like to see prolonged.

"Once a river is over-appropriated, the ability to obtain and change water rights becomes much more complicated," he said.

Dan Birch of the Colorado River Water Conservation District said it's reasonable to think the Yampa will get more attention as states in the upper half of the Colorado River Basin consume an increasing amount of water and California continues to consume more Colorado river than it's entitled to.

"What we're headed for is a train wreck," Birch said. He predicted that if the day arrives when California can't divert as much Colorado River water as it has grown accustomed to, there will be lively debates over how much other states are entitled to.

"How that shakes out could have considerable consequences for the Yampa," Birch said.

Birch is overseeing plans to enlarge Elkhead Reservoir near Craig. Part of the new water storage capacity will be used for programs to protect endangered species of native fish, and the balance will be stored against future human needs. He doesn't envision a new dam on the Yampa River itself.

"I don't think you're going to see a major project on the main stem of the Yampa," Birch said.

Two major water storage projects known collectively as Juniper/Cross Mountain were being contemplated for the Yampa in Moffat County 20 years ago, but he doesn't think they will be revived. They are too far downstream to be attractive, he said.

"Those projects wouldn't meet any needs in Colorado," Birch said.

Sharp said he continues to keep an eye on dormant proposals to use water from the Park Range near Steamboat Springs to help facilitate transmountain diversion of Western Slope water to the Front Range.

"Transmountain diversion is still the cheapest and cleanest way to grab water," Sharp said. He sees little risk that water from the Yampa's headwaters in South Routt County will be exported out of the region.

However, in the 1960s, a water developer received allocation for large flood flows from the Fish Creek and Walton Creek drainages, Sharp said. The plan was to capture the water in a reservoir and pipe it to Lake Granby, then through the Adams tunnel to cities in northern Colorado.

The Upper Yampa Conservancy District was able to purchase those rights, and Sharp believes it is unlikely that Yampa Valley water will ever be diverted to the Front Range. However, it's still theoretically possible that water consumers on the northern Front Range could seek to store water from the Park Range in a new reservoir in North Park. That might allow those water interests to offset transmountain diversions from the headwaters of the Michigan River, further east in North Park on the other side of the Continental Divide.

State Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, told those attending the water forum they need to be vigilant about attempts to expand and overload the Colorado Water Conservation Board with new members who are biased toward Eastern Slope water needs.

"Once that happens, the boat has sailed," Taylor said. "We're going to lose control of the board. I'm going to fight that ... If you're going to take our water, give us compensatory storage."

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