Steamboat Springs One of the fastest-growing regions in the country is looking to the Yampa River for water.
The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which includes eight counties on the Front Range and in northeastern Colorado, has received preliminary findings from a study examining the feasibility of transferring Yampa River water across the Continental Divide.
"The study looked at the Yampa and found what appears to be some water available up there," said Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the northern water district. "We did it to see if it would be a viable option for the state."
The district hired the global engineering and consulting firm Black & Veatch earlier this summer to conduct the study at a cost of nearly $100,000, according to district records.
Local attorney Tom Sharp informed the Steamboat Springs City Council about the study's findings Tuesday night. Sharp represents the Yampa and White river basins on the Colorado Water Conservancy Board and is on the board of directors for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
Sharp related the study's conceptual plans, which Wilkinson and Darell Zimbelman confirmed Wednesday. Zimbelman is associate general manager of the northern water district.
If the massive transfer project were to occur, water would be diverted from the Yampa River near the Moffat County town of Maybell to at least one "holding reservoir" north of the town. From the holding reservoir, water would be piped 220 miles east to one or more reservoirs 30 miles east of Fort Collins, near the town of Ault. More than 50 miles of the piping would require tunnels.
Reservoirs at both ends of the transfer could hold about 380,000 acre-feet of water, Wilkinson said. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough to meet the needs of a family of five for a year.
According to the study, which Wilkinson called "very, very rough," water would be diverted from the Yampa only when the river's flow rate exceeded 1,000 cubic feet per second. During peak runoff season, the Yampa flows through downtown Steamboat Springs at about 3,000 cfs.
Sharp estimated Tuesday that construction of such a project could cost close to $5 billion.
Wilkinson said that when the water reaches the Front Range, it could be sold for "in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000" per acre-foot.
"Three or four years ago, that was an extremely high or unattainable price for water," Sharp told the City Council. "Today, it is actually in the conceivable range for buyers."
In 2005, U.S. Census Bureau statistics showed that the Greeley metro area, or Weld County, was the fastest-growing metro area in the country from April 1, 2001, to July 1, 2003.
"Weld County and Larimer County are growing to beat the band," said South Routt County resident Dan Craig, a member of the regional Yampa-White Roundtable water group. "They need water desperately."
A frozen river
Wilkinson said Maybell could be a viable location for water diversion because the town is "far enough downstream" to minimize impact on users of the Yampa River.
But Sharp told the City Council that in addition to affecting downstream uses, such as recreation in Dinosaur National Monument, a transfer of water in Maybell would affect the entire Yampa River, including upstream users in Routt County.
"The greater impact would be that it would freeze the river," Sharp said. "Future use would be greatly affected."
In other words, if water is guaranteed for such a transfer, any future allocation of Yampa River water - such as increased storage for development - would have a "junior" water right, or lower priority, than the "senior" right of the transfer. Less water would be available for future needs in the Yampa Valley.
Sharp told the council that he has spent decades working to keep Yampa River water in the valley, and that many local residents - such as landowners, ranchers and recreational river users - share that point of view.
"Any such proposal will run into significant opposition," Sharp said about the transfer study. "Obviously, they'll have great issues to overcome."
Moffat County Commissioner Darryl Steele said he would need to see more facts before he considers any transfer proposal.
"I am not necessarily in favor of just giving up water out of the Yampa, to go somewhere else with it," Steele said. "We might be able to work something out if they were willing to build storage twice as much as they were using, so that there would be storage for development here. And they would pay for the water out of this basin on a yearly basis."
Wilkinson said a transfer would be intended as a "cooperative effort" that could help several river basins, including the Yampa.
Wilkinson and Zimbelman said a final report from Black & Veatch could come in October or November.
"We aren't talking too much about the study until we get the final report," Zimbelman said.
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