State water funding allocated

Each of 8 basins expected to receive $1 million by July 2007

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The Yampa River winds its way Thursday towards the Brooklyn neighborhood southeast of downtown Steamboat Springs. Wednesday, local and state water officials finalized a funding package that, by July 2007, will bring $1 million for water projects in northwest Colorado.

Each of Colorado's eight river basins and the Denver metro area will receive $1 million by July 2007 for water-related studies and projects.

At a meeting of the state's Interbasin Compact Committee on Wednesday in Steamboat Springs, water officials from across Colorado and state Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Russell George approved a plan to allocate $40 million in severance tax funds to river basins statewide during the next four years.

"The wheels are in motion to get this going," said Eric Hecox, manager of the office of Interbasin Compact Negotiations.

With the passage of House Bill 1177 in 2005, the state Legislature created Colorado's nine water roundtables to address present and future water challenges in each of the state's eight major river basins and the Denver metro area.

Senate Bill 179, signed into law this year, established the Water Supply Reserve Account to fund studies and projects approved by the roundtables. The state will pump $10 million of severance tax revenues into the account annually through 2009.

On Wednesday, the interbasin committee agreed to evenly distribute $9 million from the account to the roundtables within a year, beginning with a $500,000 payment to each roundtable in January 2007. In July 2007, each roundtable will receive an additional $500,000 from the account.

"The ball is now in the roundtables' court," Hecox said. "It is up to the roundtables to approve a water activity."

Also by July 2007, the state will place a total of $11 million from the reserve account into a statewide pool for competitive funding applications. The state will make additional $10 million payments to the statewide pool in July 2008 and July 2009.

Immediately after Wednesday's interbasin committee meeting, members of the Yampa/White Basin roundtable group met to discuss water needs in Northwest Colorado.

"I think those funds represent a significant opportunity for the basin," said Dan Birch of the Colorado River Water Conservancy District.

The roundtable already has several ideas about how to use the funding.

Local water recreation guide Kent Vertrees and Geoff Blakeslee of The Nature Conservancy proposed a study of recreation and environmental impacts on the Yampa, White and Green rivers to prepare for growing use and water needs.

"We haven't done the adequate level of study that is required (by HB 1177)," Vertrees said.

Roundtable member and South Routt resident Dan Craig said more storage is needed of water designated for agriculture.

"The Yampa has very little agricultural storage water compared with many rivers in the state," Craig said.

Roundtable chairman and local attorney Tom Sharp said such storage could occur with upgrades to Stillwater Reservoir south of Yampa.

"That's a project that could be on the radar screen," Sharp said.

Moffat County rancher T. Wright Dickinson, appointed by Gov. Bill Owens to the state Interbasin Compact Committee, supported the need to examine agricultural water storage in Northwest Colorado. Dickinson said the Statewide Water Supply Initiative, a multi-year study of water needs, is too optimistic in its view of water supplies along the Yampa River.

"The records have looked at whether there was water in the (irrigation) ditch, but not whether there was enough water in the ditch," Dickinson said.

George stuck around for the Yampa/White roundtable, which also was attended by more than 20 water, energy and natural resources officials.

"I enjoy the conversations," George said.

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