No fix for river closures

City water right can't ease bans on Yampa activities

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Increased river flows on the Yampa meant decent tubing conditions for this group of tourists last week. It remains to be seen whether a recreational water right filed by the city several years ago will ever have a noticeable impact on the river flow in the Yampa River's downtown section.

— A water right acquired by the city in 2003 cannot fix low water levels that recently caused temporary bans of recreational activity on the Yampa River.

Steamboat Springs' recreational in-channel diversion is a water right that mandates certain flow rates on the Yampa through the spring and summer months. The designated flow rates are intended to provide enough water for recreational activities such as kayaking, rafting, fishing and tubing. But a local attorney and water expert said Wednesday that because the city's RICD is a relatively "junior" water right, and because there are inadequate facilities to measure the Yampa's flow through downtown, the city has no power to increase downtown flows by implementing its water right - a process known as "making a call" on the river.

"I would guess that if the city made a call, it wouldn't make any noticeable difference in the level of the river," said Tom Sharp, who has served as a director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District since 1977 and chairs the Yampa/White roundtable group, which guides state action and funding in Northwest Colorado river basins.

Water rights are valued by seniority - the older the water right, the higher its priority in a time of shortage.

City officials filed for Steamboat's water right in 2003, meaning the RICD has priority over any water right filed after that time.

That's not saying much.

"Everything on the river is senior to the city's RICD. It would not generate any releases," Sharp said.

This is the second year of the city's RICD. The application was finalized Oct. 28, 2005, when District Water Court Judge Michael O'Hara signed it into law at the Routt County Courthouse.

Last year, ample water flows made the RICD mostly a nonissue. For much of late May and early June of 2006, heavy snowmelt had the Yampa flowing faster than 3,000 cubic feet per second through downtown Steamboat.

This year, the Yampa again reached peak downtown flows in late May, but topped out at about 2,200 cfs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS maintains a measuring station near the Fifth Street Bridge.

River flows sharply declined in June and July, so much so that if the city had the power, it could have made a call on the river last month.

The city's RICD is effective from April 15 to Aug. 15 each year. The required flow rates change in roughly two-week periods. The highest flow rate in the RICD is from June 1 to June 15, when the city has a right to about 1,400 cfs, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources division engineer Erin Light.

Downtown flow rates in mid-June were about 1,000 cfs, and dropped to less than 100 cfs in early July.

But until the city installs a flow-measuring station at 13th Street, which would allow measurements on the Yampa to account for Soda Creek and Butcherknife Creek, the city is unable to accurately state flow rates are below RICD levels.

"Before (city officials) can even place a call on the RICD water right, they have to install the appropriate measuring device," Light said last summer.

Jim Weber, the city's director of public works, could not be reached for comment Friday.

But river-recreation advocate and longtime boating guide Kent Vertrees, a member of the Steamboat Springs Water Commission, said supporters of the RICD always have been aware the water right would not have a significant ability to increase river flows.

"We knew that going into it," Vertrees said. "This just allows us to become a player."

Vertrees cited concerns about impacts from upcoming development along the Yampa through downtown. County and city officials are developing plans for water quality monitoring and structural improvements, respectively, in the river.

"The reach (of the Yampa) through downtown Steamboat is going to be incredibly important, from a basin-wide standpoint."

- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203

or e-mail mlawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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