Steamboat Springs Managers of the Upper Yampa River are proposing a plan that would allow property owners to buy a share of water preserved against future shortages.
Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, chairman of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said the district is proposing an Area-Wide Augmentation Plan that would set aside 2,000 acre-feet of water in Stagecoach Reservoir for future use should a shortage, or "call" on the river, occur. Property owners along the Yampa River, in designated areas that stretch from south of the town of Yampa all the way to the river's confluence with Elkhead Creek west of Hayden, would be able to buy into the augmentation plan by establishing a contract with the district.
A call on the river occurs in a time of water shortage, and means state officials strictly administer the river by allocating water according to the seniority of water rights. The oldest water right, or claim, gets water first. A call has never occurred on the Yampa.
But if it does happen, new property owners who use domestic wells on unincorporated land in Routt County would lose out to more senior water rights, such as the recreational in-channel diversion filed by the city of Steamboat Springs in 2003.
"I think the potential for a call exists, definitely, and not just from the RICD," said Erin Light, Northwest Colorado's water division engineer for the state's Department of Natural Resources. "I think there are other structures downstream that could also create a call."
Light mentioned Moffat County's Maybell Ditch, which she said provides irrigation water for at least 26 users who have water rights dating as far back as 1923.
"There are many water users on that ditch, and they are far enough downstream where they could find themselves without water," Light said. "They could put down a headgate and take every drop out of the Yampa."
In such a situation, users of domestic wells on less than 35 acres in unincorporated areas, such as Stagecoach or Milner, would be limited to using water only inside their residence, Light said, meaning no lawn sprinklers, garden hoses, water for horses and so on.
But if the Upper Yampa district implements its augmentation plan, property owners who buy into it would have access to additional water in times of shortage, regardless of the seniority of their water right, because the augmentation water from Stagecoach Reservoir would replace the domestic uses and keep the same amount of water flowing downstream.
"Augmentation would benefit those who apply for (small or domestic) wells from now on," Light said. "If they want a well for more than just in-house use, they can get it if they have augmentation water."
Monger stressed that an augmentation plan would not affect existing water rights on the Yampa.
"We're not proposing to change those (existing) water rights or what we do with them," Monger said Wednesday. "This plan is like an insurance policy."
Cheaper than court
A source of augmentation water already is required for most rural property owners, said Light, who is based in Steamboat.
"If somebody were to come into our office wanting a well permit that exceeds in-house use for one dwelling, they have to have augmentation," she said. "We won't even grant them a well permit if they don't have an augmentation plan."
Currently, acquiring a permanent augmentation plan means going through Routt County's water court, presided over by Judge Michael O'Hara.
"The difficulty is that it's advised to hire an attorney and go through engineering to determine your water depletions and so on," Light said. "Court decrees can take six months to two years, or even longer."
While a Substitute Water Supply Plan can allow property owners to obtain a temporary well permit while acquiring a permanent augmentation plan through the court, Light and Monger said the Upper Yampa district could provide an easier, cheaper option.
A contract with the Upper Yampa district would show the same proof of augmentation as a court decree.
Local water and real estate attorney Tom Sharp, who has served as a director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District since 1977, said the Basalt Water Conservancy District has an augmentation plan that services 400 to 500 contracts on the Roaring Fork River between Glenwood Springs and Aspen.
There could be a similar number of contracts in booming areas of South Routt.
"We anticipate we might be able to service 500 contracts in the Upper Yampa," said Scott Fifer, a Glenwood Springs engineer working with the Upper Yampa district.
Not for profit
Sharp said financial details of the augmentation plan - such as how much property owners will have to pay - have not been decided.
"The board has not gotten into any kind of those discussions," he said. "There will have to be sort of a base charge to every contracted person. We're not expecting to make any money off this, but we're also not expecting to not recover the costs."
Sharp said setup and annual accounting costs related to the augmentation plan will need to be recovered from the contracts, possibly through a set annual charge with additional charges for water use in the event of a shortage.
Stagecoach Reservoir holds 33,350 acre-feet of water, with an additional 3,200 acre-feet coming from a spillway expansion that could be completed in 2008. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough to meet the needs of a family of five for a year, meaning the 2,000 acre-feet proposed for the augmentation plan could go a long way.
"We've already gotten several calls from people interested in this," said Bob Weiss, the district's attorney.
Weiss also has received several calls from people opposed to the plan, and how it might impact their water rights.
Weiss said resolving those opposition statements in water court, and finalizing augmentation plan details such as pricing, will take months. Weiss said he hopes O'Hara will decree the plan to be in effect this summer.
Sharp said the augmentation plan became necessary in fall 2005, when O'Hara finalized Steamboat's RICD.
"We knew that if a RICD went through, it would provide some problems in the Upper (Yampa) Basin," he said. "The game plan is to provide protection for as long as possible into the future."