Tuesday, September 23, 2003
City Council members expressed an increased sense of urgency to file for recreational water rights at Tuesday night's meeting.
Wanting to file for water rights before the start of 2004 and uncertain of the impact the statewide ballot issue Referendum A would have, the council said it wanted to see a city plan by its Oct. 14 meeting.
"There is a huge uncertainty in terms of water resources and what could happen with Referendum A," Councilwoman Arianthe Stettner said. "We could lose some water, and I would be inclined to start this process preferably before the election because we don't know the outcome of Referendum A, and I am really fearful."
City attorney Tony Lettunich said there was still time to file water rights before the end of 2003, but he warned it could come with a high cost.
Recreational water rights would preserve in-stream water 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 say it is a way to sustain river activities from fly fishing to tubing to kayaking, even when future development farther up the river calls for more water.
At an Aug. 19 council meeting, attorney Tom Sharp, who sits on the Upper Yampa Conservancy District, said the district would not support the city filing water rights on the main body of the Yampa. The district did vote to support and even split the cost with the city if it would file water rights on just the tributaries.
Sharp suggested filing water rights on five tributaries -- Fish Creek, Walton Creek, Spring Creek, Butcherknife Creek and Soda Creek -- that flow into the Yampa River.
Since that meeting, Director of Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Chris Wilson said the city has been looking at how much water is needed for recreational activities and if the tributaries can meet those needs.
Wilson said his department has numbers for the amount of water those tributaries add to the Yampa, but his department and three citizens committees that advise it are looking at how much water would be needed to support recreational activity on the river.
"All that data makes a better water right request. If we run in now and throw some number at them, I don't know if we could (support) that," Wilson said.
The city's legal water attorneys, Trout, Whitwer and Friedman, had raised concerns with filing water rights on just the tributaries, saying it would raise the legal issue of selective subordination.
In a few years, the city could have senior water rights over many landowners. However, only those with junior rights taking water after the tributaries flow into the Yampa would be subordinate to the city, meaning they could only take water from the Yampa after the city's amount was met.
Those in the upper part of the Yampa River, such as a developer in South Routt, would not be subordinate to the city's water rights.
Lettunich said it is almost a certainty that the Upper Yampa Conservancy District would fight the city if it filed water rights on the entire body of the Yampa River.
Councilman Bud Romberg expressed concern over the cost of litigation if the Upper Yampa Conservancy District opposes the city's claim. He said the city should take the time to gather all the information it needs before going into a $100,000 legal battle.
But Councilman Loui Antonucci said that in 20 to 50 years the amount could be worth it.
"That is going to seem really cheap as the state continues to grow," Antonucci said. "We need to put this on (high) priority, so we don't feel like we are scrambling with our backs against the wall."
Lettunich warned that litigation with the Yampa could cost far more than $100,000.
"I am just concerned when you get going on this there is no return. There is no going back," Lettunich said.