Dwindling supply

Growing population will require water storage, conservation

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By 2030, more than 60,000 people will live in Northwest Colorado - a 50 percent increase in population from 2005 statistics.

The statewide population likely will grow at the same rate. In 2030, an estimated 7.1 million people will call Colorado home, up about 50 percent from the state's 2005 population of nearly 4.7 million.

Although the 2005 numbers come from the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2030 projections come from a less expected source - the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

As part of the Statewide Water Supply Initiative - an ongoing study of state water resources and needs, the conservation board and state Department of Natural Resources are examining water use in Colorado, basin by basin.

And examining water use means examining people.

As growth in population, industry, recreation, energy exploration and municipal needs booms in Northwest Colorado and across the Western U.S., water is no longer simply a local resource. It is becoming an increasingly shared necessity.

As a result, water officials along the Yampa River are looking for ways to increase water storage, use water conservatively and protect river flows that, unlike in much of Colorado and the West, have water to spare.

Although the Water Supply Initiative shows that the Yampa, White and Green rivers basin is well-prepared for the future, the fact that the Yampa River's water is under-appropriated could turn more eyes toward this corner of the state.

"This isn't Mayberry any longer," said Jay Gallagher, manager of the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District in Steamboat Springs. "There are forces in the state that would love to have more water. We're part of the larger world out there."

Under the dome

The changing nature of water allocation has brought all hands on deck in Colorado.

More so than ever before, water officials say, people are getting together to talk about the state's most valuable resource. Political action under the Capitol's golden dome in Denver is spurring the collaborative conversations.

House Bill 1777, signed into law by Gov. Bill Owens in 2005, created a group of "roundtable" discussions involving residents and water experts from river basins across the state. The goal is to facilitate the formation of water policy recommendations and concerns.

On May 26, Owens signed another bill - House Bill 1400 - that approved and funded the Interbasin Compact Charter, which lays out governance rules for future roundtable discussions and ongoing negotiations among water-basin officials in the state.

Three Western Slope legislators sponsored HB 1400: Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison; Rep. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction; and Rep. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.

"We have ushered in a new era of cooperation in the long-divisive world of water law and politics," Buescher said in May after legislators approved the bill with a 64-1 vote in the state House of Representatives. "The roundtables will address problems on the local level and help the state get its act together when it comes to water policy."

Time to talk

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Graphic by Jayme Elrod

Rick Brown of the Colorado Water Conservation Board is playing a key role in the roundtables.

As project manager for the Water Supply Initiative, Brown has spent much of his spring and summer presenting findings from the study at meetings hosted by the Interbasin Compact Committee, a group of water experts that will use information from the roundtables to prepare policy recommendations for the state Legislature.

On July 19, Brown spoke about the Yampa River at the Holiday Inn of Craig.

"Your basin has done a really decent job of planning for future water needs," Brown told a group of about 20 people seated in an unadorned conference room. The findings Brown presented stated that despite potential agricultural water shortages, "water availability overall is not a significant issue in the basin."

Still, local water officials are doing their best to plan ahead.

"We have to be very careful to husband and keep our water supplies here," said local water and real estate attorney Tom Sharp, who has served as a director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District since 1977. "We are going to need those supplies some day."

Brown's presentation of findings from the Statewide Water Supply Initiative included several statistics that illustrate Sharp's statement:

• In Routt County, 11,110 acre-feet of Yampa River water were used for municipal and industrial demands in the year 2000. In 2030, 22,488 acre-feet will be needed.

• In Moffat County, 16,337 acre-feet were used for municipal and industrial demands in 2000. In 2030, 26,605 acre-feet will be needed.

• Oil shale development in Rio Blanco and Moffat counties - the extent and impact of which is still widely unknown - could create a demand for between 47,000 and 141,000 acre-feet of water a year.

• Shortages exist for agricultural water in water districts 44 and 54, which include parts of western Routt County and much of central Moffat County.

• Irrigated agricultural acres are decreasing in central Routt County because of "increasing urbanization" around Steamboat Springs.

Cattle, not horses

The group listening to Brown included many of the Yampa Valley's most influential and knowledgeable river officials. Seated at the presentation were, among others, Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, who is chairman of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District; Moffat County Commissioner Darryl Steele, who ranches on the Yampa; John Fetcher, secretary for the conservancy district and a builder of reservoirs and dams along the Yampa River; river guide and outdoorsman Kent Vertrees; and T. Wright Dickinson of Maybell, a fourth-generation Moffat County rancher, nine-year member of the Colorado Water Conservation District board and past chairman of the agricultural committee for Colorado Counties. Owens has appointed Dickinson to serve as an at-large member on the Interbasin Compact Committee.

Despite the titles and positions of those present, the Craig meeting was casual. Cowboy hats, boots and plaid shirts were as common as the lighthearted ribbing among members of the group - ribbing such as a poignant joke from Fetcher.

The 93-year-old Fetcher sat silently throughout Brown's presentation of study results. Because his seat did not face the large, pull-down screen, Fetcher listened to Brown while turning only rarely to look at slides that projected the future of the river he has molded throughout his life.

Only at the end of the presentation did Fetcher speak up. Brown's final slide showed horses grazing in a field, a scenic photo intended as background for contact information.

"Why are you showing horses in that picture and not cattle?" Fetcher asked sharply.

The room broke into laughter. As Brown tried to explain that the photo is from a "trophy ranch" along the Arkansas River and that it's simply a nice shot he uses at the end of all his presentations, someone in the crowded room egged Fetcher on.

"Don't give up, John. Keep the heat on him," the voice exclaimed.

Although said in jest, the message of the joke was clear. Gathered in that room, and all along the Yampa River, are strong-willed, resilient people who do not let go of things easily - especially their water.

At the table

Many of those people are working to form a management group to provide policy direction regarding future use of Yampa River water.

At two meetings this summer - a June 1 water summit at Hayden High School and a June 29 meeting of the Yampa River Basin Partnership at Hayden Town Hall - water officials supported the formation of such a group.

"A lot of the players that you need in this are already around the table," said Bill McKee, Upper Colorado Watershed Coordinator for the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

"We have water you can actually do something with," Monger said, citing the need for a management group. "There's not an entity out there directly taking care of water quality."

Mike Zopf, Routt County's director of environmental health, said such a group could be instrumental in monitoring water quality and usage in the Yampa River Basin.

"Most groups are formed when the problem already exists," he said. "We've got good water quality. I think we do need a watershed group and secure funding from year to year."

The Yampa River Basin Partnership was instrumental in working with the state Department of Public Health and Environment to create the Yampa Basin Watershed Plan, known as the Yampa 208 Plan, a guiding document for future Yampa River management.

Doug Jones, mayor of Craig, said with that plan in place, it may be time for the basin partnership to pass the baton to another management group.

"It sounds like this group has served its purpose, and it's time for us to go by the wayside and let someone else take charge," Jones said.

Available to marketwWhen Jay Gallagher referred to "forces in the state that would love to have more water," he likely was referring to the Front Range.

At an Aug. 15 meeting with the Routt County Board of Commissioners, Sharp gave a quarterly update from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, on which he represents the Yampa and White rivers, and the Colorado River Water Conservation District, on which he represents Routt County.

Sharp's news was foreboding.

By interpreting a state Supreme Court decision from about 10 years ago, Sharp said, "a number of people on the Front Range" have determined that as many as 240,000 acre-feet of water from Blue Mesa Reservoir could be "available to market." In other words, the water could be available for the thirsty Front Range to purchase.

"They need water. There's absolutely no question," Sharp said about Front Range communities.

The Blue Mesa Reservoir stores water from the Gunnison River, west of Gunnison. With about 1 million acre-feet of water, Blue Mesa is Colorado's largest reservoir. The Gunnison River drains into the Colorado River near the city of Grand Junction.

The problem with moving 240,000 acre-feet of water east and over the Continental Divide, Sharp said, has to do with taking water out of the Colorado River system.

"We don't know, in drought years, how much water is left to pump out of the Colorado River," Sharp said, citing a web of various water allocations and rights across the state.

Should states such as Arizona, Nevada and California - members of the Lower Basin of the Colorado River, as established in the Colorado River Compact of 1922 - make a call on their water rights while 240,000 acre-feet are pumped east from Blue Mesa, Sharp said Yampa River water could be jeopardized.

"We have the most junior water rights on the Western Slope," he said. "All of our water rights, except the most senior agricultural rights, could be curtailed."

Lower basin states are using "every drop" of their compact allotment or are on the verge of doing so, Sharp said. A call on water rights from the lower basin is "a question of when," he added.

"Maybe not in my lifetime, but still - it's when, not if," he said.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said "a lot of incredible things" would have to occur for water to be transferred from Blue Mesa to the Front Range.

"There is an incredible amount of resistance to diverting water from the Gunnison to the east," Suthers said in mid-August while visiting Steamboat Springs.

Yampa River water also could be sought from within Colorado, not just from lower basin states, Sharp told county commissioners Monger, Nancy Stahoviak and Dan Ellison.

While reviewing the minutes from a meeting of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Sharp said a conservation board staffer noticed a reference to an international engineering firm that is preparing a study about piping water to the Front Range at a potential cost of at least "several billion dollars," Sharp said.

"The firm is looking at the Green and the Yampa," Sharp said.

The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District extends north from Boulder to the Greeley and Fort Morgan areas.

"I just wanted you to be aware that the North District is looking," Sharp said. "If water goes across the Divide, it's not coming back."

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