As the Yampa River is over-flowing its banks, the city is being asked to take steps to make sure it does not dry up.
A recent state Supreme Court ruling and six-month time-frame brought former City Councilman Ken Brenner before the city's Parks and Recreation Commission on Wednesday night.
He pleaded for the city to pick up the pace in its research on recreation water rights and asked the commission to look closely at the city appointed water attorneys, who have argued against some of the state's biggest recreation water rights cases.
"The time is critical to move ahead now," Brenner said. "We owe it to our children, grandchildren and the people who will live here 100 years from now to persevere the integrity of our river."
Having recreational water rights would establish a minimum in-stream flow in the Yampa River as it runs through Steamboat, protecting the river habitat and providing water needed for kayaking, fishing and tubing.
Under the state's first-in-time, first-in-right water law, if the city received recreational water rights, it would not have to worry about the Yampa's water levels dropping as water rights are later acquired for developments and agricultural uses upstream.
City Councilman Steve Ivancie said those water rights already are starting to be purchased.
"I do think it is important that we step up and start looking at this issue very carefully," Ivancie said. "We all know, especially after a drought like last year, that people are thinking and buying water. And we know what an important resource water is."
On May 19, the state Supreme Court passed a 3-3 decision to recognize recreational water rights, which would allow Golden, Vail and Breckenridge to fill its rivers for whitewater kayaking courses.
Brenner said that decision shines favorably on the city acquiring recreational water rights. But when the state Legislature reconvenes in January, laws could be put in place that prohibit recreational water rights. That scenario gives Steamboat a six-month window to file for water rights.
In the past two years the city has spent $90,000 on river management plans and $50,000 on river improvements. Parks and Recreation Director Chris Wilson said his department also has been researching recreational water rights for about two years.
The issue could get complicated for the city, which takes water out of the river for watering its ball fields and golf courses and for making snow.
The city may oppose acquiring recreational water rights if towns upstream, such as Oak Creek, would ask for rights, Wilson said.
The city has time, he said. Unlike the towns of Golden, Pueblo and Lafayette, the Yampa River has not reached the point where it is over adjudicated and people are raiding water rights.
"It seems to be the sky is falling sort of thing, and I don't want you to think that it is," Wilson told the commission. "We have time to be prudent and to make good choices."
The more than $100,000 in legal fees it could take to acquire water rights is another obstacle for the city in a tight budget year. The need for water rights would have to be weighed over the requests for new ball fields, parks and trails, Wilson said.
The Parks and Rec Commission decided to hand the issue to the Rivers and Trails Committee and the Community Advisory Committee, which has been working on the Yampa River Management Plan. Both committees have been looking at recreational water rights and have established it as a high priority.
Those committees would give a recommendation back to the Parks and Rec Commission, who could then choose to pass along a recommendation to the City Council.
Brenner also raised the question of the city using Trout, Witwer and Freeman, P.C. as its legal water attorneys when those same attorneys argued against the May 19 supreme court case.
"The people defending against this are the people we have been using as legal advisers for how to get this project completed," Brenner said.
Wilson admitted the situation has raised some red flags within the city but said the firm has been the water attorney for several years and deals with the city's enormous water portfolio that extends far beyond recreational water rights. He also said the attorneys have not been asked to start the legal process of getting recreational water rights.