First in time | first in place

Water demands changing ranchers' traditional way of life

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— Dick Palmer couldn't recall when he cut his left forearm.

"You mean this?" he asked on a clear morning in late May, glancing at an inch-long, bright red gash just above the roll of his sleeve.

"I don't know when that happened," he said. "I do it all the time."

For Palmer, life on the Yampa River is not easy. His hands are leathery sandpaper. His face is beaten by wind and sun. Beneath the brim of his faded "Roaring Fork Valley Co-op" cap, his blue eyes shine like icicles. He's 76, but you wouldn't believe it if he told you.

And according to his wife, you shouldn't.

"Don't believe a thing he says," said Kay Palmer, also 76, leaning on a counter while Dick sat at the kitchen table in their home. The couple has lived on their ranch outside of Yampa for 36 years.

They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary earlier this month.

"She's my third wife," Dick said with a grin. Kay rolled her eyes.

You'll get another wry comment if you ask Dick what he raises on the family's 1,200-acre ranch.

"Cattle, sheep and hay," he said. "And a little bit of hell."

But when the conversation turns to water, Dick Palmer quickly gets serious. This is a man who knows as much about water rights, laws and decrees as he does about the two Model 'A' Fords -- circa 1928 -- in his driveway. Both Fords still run so well that Palmer sometimes uses them for irrigation and fence work.

"Anybody who's trying make a living off a ranch gets knowledgeable (about water regulation) pretty fast," Palmer said. "Or else you don't stay in business."

He is one of more than 100 ranchers who rely on the Yampa River for water to irrigate fields and nourish livestock. Ranching in Northwest Colorado is a way of life that has endured for more than a century. It is a way of life that produces characters of unusual strength, resilience, ingenuity and humor.

It is a way of life that would not be possible without the Yampa.

"The river is vital to the livelihood of those that work and live around here," said Jeff Comstock, director of natural resources for Moffat County. "It's part of a big system, but it's a piece that we wouldn't be able to function without."

Juggling water

Elvis Iacovetto is one of several water commissioners responsible for regulating water flows along the Yampa River. A friendly, knowledgeable man, Iacovetto has refereed local high school sports for years.

In some ways, his job as a commissioner is similar to his hobby.

Working for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Iacovetto essentially referees who gets how much water, and when, on his stretch of the Yampa. That stretch is the southern half of District 58, which includes the Yampa's headwaters in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, much of South Routt County and municipal water facilities for the town of Phippsburg and the city of Steamboat Springs. It also includes about 70 ranches and more than 250 structures, Iacovetto said. He has held the job for 17 years.

"I never know what I'm going to do (each day) until I get out in the field," he said just after 7 a.m. on a Monday in June, driving his pickup to Yamcolo Reservoir from his Phippsburg home. "It's a constant balancing act -- I can't physically juggle, but I can juggle water."

Iacovetto and reservoir superintendent John Yurich meet at Yamcolo at 7 a.m. most mornings, except during the winter, to gauge how much water is available.

"That's good, John!" Iacovetto hollers to Yurich on this clear day. Yurich is working machinery inside a gauge house at the reservoir. Iacovetto is about 50 yards downhill, turning a wheel that controls the "headgate" over a spillway. A headgate is a guillotine-like structure that can be raised or lowered to release differing amounts of water.

The two are controlling the flow of water that, downstream in Northwest Colorado, is subject to an increasing number of uses -- and a decreasing number of ranches. Rising fuel costs, a lingering drought and land values that far exceed agricultural profits are forcing ranchers to reconsider their livelihoods. In 1998, there were 230,000 acres of irrigated agricultural land in Northwest Colorado, according to a report by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. By 2005, that number had decreased to 170,000 acres, according to updated reports.

At the same time, the spread of river recreation, energy exploration and municipal needs are placing ever more eyes on the Yampa.

On one hand

Two of those eyes belong to Kevin Murphy.

"This water goes to Las Vegas," said Murphy, an employee of the U.S. Geological Survey, as he monitored the Yampa's flow rate through downtown Steamboat Springs in May. "A lot of people downstream depend on this water, and they need to know how much is coming through."

Along the way to Las Vegas, less and less of that water is being used on ranches.

"The historical uses of agriculture are still in place. But agricultural water is pressured as a water source from ever-growing municipal demands," wrote William Trampe, president of the board of directors for the Colorado River District, in the board's 2005 annual report.

Yampa rancher Dean Rossi said the number of people who live off the land in his part of South Routt County is getting smaller all the time.

"I can count them on one hand," Rossi said. "Somebody comes around and offers a ridiculous price (for ranchland). ... We're even getting pressure up in Oak Creek."

But Rossi said he has no plans to sell.

Keep it moving

If you go irrigating with Rossi, don't wear your good shoes.

In the middle of a June that was hotter than most, Rossi's hay fields just south of Yampa are soggy. Water oozes around your feet and splatters onto your pants as you walk alongside Rossi, a solidly built man with salt-and-pepper hair. He is wearing rubber waders and carrying a shovel.

"These ditches have been here about 100 years," Rossi said, gesturing to small, meandering channels that carry water through fields his family has owned since 1910.

"I clean most of them every year with a tractor. The key is to keep your water moving from place to place."

Rossi has a lot of places to water. His family owns or manages nearly all of the pastureland between the small South Routt County towns of Phippsburg and Yampa. On either side of Colorado Highway 131, that land covers several miles, including at least four "river miles" of the Yampa River. River miles are measured not as the crow flies, but as the river bends.

With the Yampa, it's like measuring a curled-up piece of yarn.

"The river does wander quite a bit around here," Rossi mused. "Water doesn't always go where you want it to."

But in some places on his family's land, Rossi, like any rancher, has done his best to make sure water goes exactly where he wants.

One of those places is the Stafford Ditch. According to Rossi, the ditch is named after turn-of-the-century landowner Minnie Stafford. It carries water from the Yampa River to Rossi's fields, then around a hill to fields owned by a local cattle company.

Because the ditch meets the Yampa in an eddy, or slow-moving patch of water, river water has to be forced to flow into the ditch instead of just rushing downstream.

For years, Rossi said as he stood on a rocky Yampa riverbed, he and other users of the Stafford Ditch would plug the river with just about anything they could find to create water pressure that would direct water into the ditch.

Logs, tin sheets, hay bales -- even loads of gravel dumped in with a backhoe.

"That wasn't good for anybody, or for the river," he said.

About four years ago, Rossi re-designed the blockage. Now, sheets of iron lie about 8 feet below the riverbed, anchoring a barrier stretching from one side of the river to the other. The barrier's height can be adjusted seasonally, depending on the amount of water coming downstream.

Building the barrier across the Yampa was no easy task, he said.

"You ever try to swing a sledgehammer underwater?"

Walking back to his truck, Rossi commented about the wind, which was blowing white tufts of cottonwood seeds through the air, like a June snowfall.

A few days earlier, he said, the wind blew nearly nonstop while he worked his ranch.

"If you weren't grumpy in the morning, that wind had you grumpy by the end of the day," Rossi said. "But luckily, I don't think we've had the wind that they've had down towards Maybell."

Downstream, other ranchers haven't been so lucky.

Second to air

After it leaves the town of Yampa, the Yampa River flows about 250 miles north by northwest through Routt and Moffat counties. It finally empties into the Green River at Steamboat Rock in Dinosaur National Monument, less than 10 miles from the Utah border.

A few miles farther west, rancher Scott Chew lives on about 3,000 acres just north of Jensen, Utah. The Chew family has ranched on the land since 1941, using water from the Green River. The family also owns and works ranches in Maybell, irrigated by the Yampa, and in the north Routt County town of Clark, using water from the Elk River, which empties into the Yampa west of Steamboat Springs.

In the middle of June, while Palmer and Rossi still enjoyed healthy flows, Chew stood on his Utah land and pointed to fields parched by high temperatures and dry desert winds.

"Everything is struggling," he said, stooping low to run a hand through the brittle red clay and soil of a cornfield. "This winter was one of the best winters we've put in, but it's been a bad spring. I'm stressing a little bit."

Chew was clad in jeans, boots and a denim shirt. The shirt had holes in both elbows. The jeans were spattered with mud.

He was stressing because he can't irrigate his dry fields because of a mechanical problem with his "circle pivots," or large irrigation pipes that roll on wheels. Chew hasn't had time to fix the problem because it's cattle-moving season. Along with his brother Doak and his sons Carson and Ty, Scott Chew spent the day herding cattle into large trucks for the trip to the "summer ranches" in Maybell and Clark.

But he knows he can't let his fields go without water for another day.

"In two days, you can stress your crop pretty bad," said Chew, 51. He earned his degree in agricultural engineering from Utah State University during the 1970s.

"I've got to do something tomorrow."

Despite the bad spring, Chew knows that when his pipes are fixed, at least he'll have some water.

Neighbors have taken the family to court three times to dispute their water rights, Chew said. Each attempt failed, he added, because of the strength of the family's "decree," or adjudicated water allotment.

"The only way that we would have a (water) shortage is a drought," said Laura Chew, 72, Scott's mother. Laura Chew has lived on all three of the family's ranches, but primarily on the Utah ranch, since marrying Dean Chew in 1952.

Sometimes, she will sit outside, Laura Chew said, and think about the rivers she has watched for more than half a century.

"Every drop of water that goes past my house in Clark, goes past my house in Jensen, Utah," she said, swatting at flies and sipping lemonade on an early summer evening in Utah. "Water is second to air for our existence. I have a deep appreciation for it, both in a respectful sort of way and a reverent sort of way."

First in time, first in place

According to Iacovetto, there are 18 irrigation ditches between Yamcolo Reservoir and the town of Yampa.

Dick Palmer owns part of the oldest ditch.

"That one's a No. 1 water right," he said, pointing to a thin, slow-moving ditch on his ranch. He bought the water right to the ditch, which he guessed was dug and allocated for irrigation more than 100 years ago, at the same time he bought his land. He owns the rights to about one-fifth of the water that flows through the ditch.

"There can be another No. 1 (water) right farther down the river, but in this area there can't be," he said.

Water rights are allocated by seniority, a system commonly called "first in time, first in place." The lower the number, the better. In times of a water shortage, Iacovetto allocates water to the lowest rights first, then works up as water availability allows.

Palmer said most of the ditches on his ranch are a No. 15 water right or better.

"We've got all the water we want," he said while checking ditches on an ATV.

He said he's noticed an increasing demand for water lately -- including his.

"We don't get approached all the time, but it does happen," he said. "Even by municipalities in Nevada."

Behind Palmer are the broad peaks of the Flat Tops Mountains, still holding snow in June. Just below those peaks, Yamcolo and Stillwater reservoirs store water from the Bear River. The Bear flows through Routt National Forest land, through ranches and into the town of Yampa, where at some point -- exactly where depends on whom you ask -- it becomes the Yampa River.

It's no wonder that people as far away as Nevada are looking to Palmer for water. The sharp-eyed man lives just below the headwaters of a major river system, which unlike most systems, has water to spare.

But this morning, Palmer isn't thinking about that. He has fields to irrigate and ditches to clear or block to spread water across his ranch. Palmer has a simple question for visitors.

"Did you bring a shovel?"

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