Challenges run deep

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Standing in a high-mountain meadow on a June morning in the summer of his 94th year, John Fetcher likes what he sees. Sand Mountain -- and its lingering snowfields -- dominates the view from the upper Fetcher Ranch. Fetcher is irrigating his cattle pasture, and the world seems right. But the early summer breeze that rustles the willows along the creek whispers of changes to come.

"Isn't that beautiful?" Fetcher says with a note of boyish enthusiasm. "I get water up here to the pasture from the creek by gravity. In three weeks, or two weeks, this creek will be way down. We usually run out of water on July 4. Pretty soon, we'll start haying."

Never one to not work, Fetcher still goes to his office at the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District several days a week -- when he isn't working on the ranch. Lanky and with powerful hands, he expresses dismay at the dead timber he encounters near one of his irrigation ditches. He threatens to return the next day and clean it up with a chain saw.

Fetcher's adult life has been devoted to ensuring and enhancing the water supply for the people of the Yampa Valley. His work has done more to shape the future of the Yampa River Basin than that of any other person. He's had a hand in damming rivers and building reservoirs for agriculture, municipal consumption and power generation.

But on this particular morning, he's content to anticipate the spreading glint of water on grass as his pasture gradually begins to flood. Fetcher's assistant, Amy Tweedy, is about to turn the wheel on an irrigation headgate, sending the recent snowmelt swelling Floyd Creek into his irrigation ditch.

"Give it about eight turns," Fetcher suggests. The dry ditch is quickly running with water at a rate of about 2 cubic feet per second.

By Independence Day, he knows, the grass hay that is the foundation of his way of life will be flourishing.

Yampa at the crossroads

Fetcher's ranch sits high in the watershed, tucked against the 10,000-foot mountains that store moisture in the form of snow. The peaks of the Elk Range ensure there will be adequate moisture for his hay fields for generations to come. But Colorado's water supply is finite, and demand is increasing across the state.

The living river system that sustains the people of the Yampa Valley faces an uncertain future. Powerful water interests are focusing their gaze on the Yampa River. They are looking for ways to satisfy unmet demand for water -- enough for the next 30 years.

As water managers and politicians look for answers, the Yampa is conspicuous for its abundance of water. Steamboat Springs attorney Tom Sharp, who holds posts on several boards that oversee water planning in this part of the West, says the Yampa River system yields about 1.2 million acre-feet of water every year. But Northwest Colorado communities and residents use just one-tenth of that, or about 120,000 acre-feet.

Put those facts together, and it's plain to see why the Yampa is the subject of increasing attention.

Russell George, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, spelled it out during a speech he gave in the Hayden High School auditorium June 1. He said that in the future, the Yampa River and its tributaries may be needed to help satisfy the needs and obligations of the state. That could involve cross-basin "shifting" of water, George said, and construction of new water storage facilities. He was blunt in saying that resisting the coming changes would be an exercise in futility.

"The question is, do you want to participate or do you want to let it happen without you?" he asked. "That's the cold, hard truth about how we've changed the debate about water in Colorado today."

In the past, Colorado has managed, on a case-by-case basis, eight major rivers whose headwaters are found within its boundaries. That practice is about to change, and the new way of business has implications for the Yampa River Basin.

"This absolutely is a statewide issue," George told his Routt County audience. "In the past, we looked at it on a per-river basis, not as one state."

Under the Colorado Water for the Twenty-first Century Act, George said Colorado would reach water management decisions by looking at the overall state water supply.

"That has scared the daylights out of a couple of basins, and one of them is right here," George acknowledged. "Why not put it on the table and face it? Face our fear. Face our enemy, who could be our neighbor."

Around the bend

Three and a half years after the record drought of 2002 forced water issues to the surface of Coloradans' collective consciousness, the signs of change are hard to mistake in the Yampa Valley.

The $19.5 million expansion of the Elkhead Reservoir near Craig is within a year of completion. The expansion required the cooperation of numerous government agencies, but what stands out is the marriage of dam builders and conservationists determined to restore populations of struggling fish that are native to the Yampa and the Green rivers. When complete, the Elkhead expansion will provide water to restore minimum flows needed to sustain the Colorado pikeminnow. But it also will give the Colorado River Water Conservation District permission to look for new water storage projects in the basin. And there will be more water for the city of Craig.

From the vantage point of the resort town of Steamboat Springs, it's easy to lose track of the fact that the Yampa doesn't begin at the upstream city limit and end at the downstream limit. Alarmed by the surging demand for recreation on the town stretch of the river -- most notably commercial inner tube floating outfitters -- the city took the unprecedented step in 2003 of funding an exhaustive "Yampa River Management Plan." For the past two years, the city has hired a consultant for $15,000 a year to monitor indicators of the river's health, from checking trace levels of heavy metals to the biomass of micro-invertebrate life that form the base of the food chain in the river. That monitoring effort will continue every other year, Steamboat's open space coordinator Craig Robinson said. In 30 years, it will allow people who care about the river's health to gauge whether water quality has degraded.

The economics of putting water to work in the Yampa Valley also are evolving. Affluent vacationers and second-home owners will pay several hundred dollars a day for the opportunity to fish on private waters and be photographed holding a trophy trout. Fishing guide Kent Vertrees said fly fishing shops will pay "rod fees" of at least $185 a day to landowners for every "sport" they are allowed to chaperone for a private angling experience. The price can go up if there are above-average trout in the water, or even when the fish are allowed to rest for a day or two between visits.

Steamboat also has joined other Colorado mountain towns that have successfully acquired junior water rights to ensure that a minimal amount of water for kayakers continues to flow through manmade whitewater play parks. The city went to water court to assert its right to do so.

Recreational water rights such as Steamboat's are nonconsumptive -- water isn't actually taken out of the river -- but they are further proof of the growing demand for water and the steps entities will take to secure every drop they can.

The thirst for Rocky Mountain water doesn't end in Northwest Colorado or along the Front Range. Hundreds of miles downstream, cities and farmers in other states have a longstanding right to the majority of the water in the Colorado River system. It's a right they've had for almost 85 years.

Bound to share

Compacts that determine how Colorado is to share water with its neighbors downstream govern all the major rivers that flow out of the state. The old way of managing each river system independently of the others was not efficient, George said.

"Our neighbors have liked that we've been inefficient in how we use our water statewide," he added.

Colorado's flexibility to meet the demand for water is limited by the Colorado River Compact of 1922. It determines how much of the water that flows out of the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains can be retained by the "upper basin states" -- Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah, and how much water they must allow to flow to the lower basin states -- Arizona, Nevada and California. A smaller amount of water also goes to Mexico.

Simply put, Colorado is obligated to allow about 75 percent of the water generated by the Colorado River system to flow to the lower basin states, said Rick Brown, acting deputy director of a state agency called the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Colorado's annual legal share of Colorado River Compact water is 3.855 million acre-feet. The water it's obligated to send to the lower basin states -- 8.23 million acre-feet -- is stored in Lake Powell. As it stands today, Colorado uses about 2.5 million acre-feet of its allotted share.

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, estimates that of the waters bound by the compact, there remains just 250,000 acre-feet that could be stored behind new dams. Other water experts dispute Kuhn's numbers. But if he is right, Colorado's margin for growth is small.

Kuhn's estimate takes into account another 250,000 acre-feet already tied up in planned water projects. His agency was formed to balance Western Slope water interests with those of the Front Range.

Brown said he agrees with Kuhn on some significant points, but he estimates the state still could develop between 450,000 and 1.2 million acre-feet of water for consumptive use. But there are tradeoffs to be weighed, he cautioned. If the state comes close to developing all of the water it is entitled to, it must weigh the risk that a prolonged drought could force it to cut back on use to fulfill its obligations. That could result in economic hardship.

Their demand, our supply

The constraints of the Compact are significant to the future of the Yampa.

"We've begun to outgrow, in many places, the water supply," George said. "If there is more demand than supply, how do we address it? We're not going to be able to stop demand in excess of supply."

If some of George's language sounds troubling, water users in the Yampa Valley should be reminded that he is a former state legislator from Rifle who has the best interests of Colorado's Western Slope at heart, Jim Pokrandt said.

Pokrandt, an education specialist with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said the Department of Natural Resources' top water dog is delivering speeches such as the one he gave in Hayden last month because he sees that the Front Range population is growing relative to the rest of the state. It's a trend that will not only increase demand for water, but also gradually shift the balance of power in the state Legislature as Senate and House districts are reapportioned.

"(George is) suggesting that now might be the time we start talking about how we're going to divvy up remaining Compact water," Pokrandt said -- before it's too late.

George concludes that if Colorado cannot meet the demand for water, demand in one part of the state will be felt in other river basins. And that gives rise to the question, "How do we handle the politics of decision-making?"

The urgency attached to answering that question was ratcheted up by the severe drought of 2002.

In 2003, Colorado began the Statewide Water Supply Initiative. Water officials formed basin roundtables in each of the state's regions to gather facts about the supply and demand for water. The roundtables have been formalized under the Colorado Water for the Twenty-first Century Act. It provides for the creation of nine river basin roundtables -- one for each river system and another for Metro Denver -- to establish priorities for their regions. The act also creates a statewide interbasin committee that would address issues among basins.

"There is no reason for it to fail unless we let it," George said.

Best use

Ranchers such as John Fetcher typically hold senior water rights that protect their way of life. However, as demand for water exceeds supply, the economic incentives to take water out of agricultural production and lease it for municipal and industrial purposes will be persuasive. George said this summer that he was troubled by the resurgent interest in developing oil shale development in Rio Blanco County.

"No one can tell me how much water oil shale will use," George said.

Not all of the water from Floyd Creek that Fetcher is entitled to use to flood his pasture sinks into the soil. A significant portion flows into Steamboat Lake. When it pours out the bottom of the dam, it already has mingled with Willow Creek on its way to merge with the Elk River, which, in turn, reaches a confluence with the Yampa east of Milner. Ultimately, some of it will satisfy the terms of the 1922 Compact when it arrives at Lake Powell.

For Fetcher, the highest and best use of the water in Routt County's high meadows is described by a simple equation.

"In this country, the only thing we can grow is grass," he said. "We're lucky to have 60 days between frosts. Our job here is to convert grass into beef -- period. If they take our water, we're out of business. It's that simple."

And it's been that way in the Yampa Valley for more than a century. But change may be just over the horizon.

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