Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
Find more columns by Tom here.
It's amusing to think that a homely fish rarely glimpsed by anyone but biologists could hold the key to the future of Northwest Colorado's water needs.
You say you want to incorporate a new town? Talk to the razorback sucker first. Want to build a new golf course community wrapped around 36 holes of championship links? Before you break ground, you're going to have to satisfy the fish.
More than 50 people packed a room at Bogue Hall on the Alpine Campus of Colorado Mountain College this week to talk about the news headlines foretelling the fate of the Yampa River. It seems my colleague Mike Lawrence's articles this month have awakened a number of people to the magnitude of the changes brewing just over the mountains.
There was much hand wringing at Wednesday's meeting and discussion of water law, but very little talk of the razorback sucker and his friends, the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub and bonytail.
In case you spent this month on a river raft without satellite Internet, a water district on the northern Front Range has tentatively proposed to build a $4 billion pipeline to tap into the Yampa. It would transport one fifth of the river's annual capacity (where it flows through Maybell west of Craig) to the eastern side of the mountains.
Jim Pokrandt of the Colorado River Water Conservation District told people at the meeting that the success of the pipeline would mean Colorado will have maxed out its ability to develop water storage under its compact with lower basin states.
Depending upon your point of view, the proponents of the Yampa River Multi-Basin Project are either disciples of the devil or angels offering the salvation of Northwest Colorado.
The members of the board of directors of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District are inviting all kinds of stakeholders to the party. The possibility that some of the pipeline water could be dumped back into the river upstream from Steamboat has already been dangled.
In the end, it may be the four endangered fish species of the Yampa and Green rivers that wield power over the fate of the project. Imagine endangered species becoming the best allies of not only environmentalists, but also ranchers.
The expansion of Elkhead Reservoir nearing completion outside Craig has taught us that in order to build more water storage in this century, we must look out for the needs of the endangered fish of the Yampa. The expansion of Elkhead was made possible by a complicated deal among water interests. It will store additional water for the city of Craig and allow the Colorado Conservation District to build storage elsewhere in tributary streams. But it wasn't approved until water was set aside to augment river flows for the endangered fish during the driest months of the year.
That makes the homely fish a power broker among the competing interests trying to control water in the Yampa that exits the state in Dinosaur National Monument.
The board of the Northern District isn't oblivious to the need to kiss the endangered fish you know where. It will be interesting to learn how the Northern District plans to meet its goals and satisfy the needs of the federally protected fish. In order to store 575,000 acre-feet of water and pump 300,000 eastward each year, it appears the Northern District would have to help itself to a big gulp out of the peak flows that build on the Yampa in May. Yet, the survival of the fish depends upon the peak flows.
National Park Service Ranger Becky Gillette told me you can graph the rise and fall of the river and place a big X on the line indicating where the fish migrate or reproduce. The absolute peak indicates the only conditions that supply the backwater nurseries vital to the reproduction of the fish.
I'm not so naÃive that I think a homely fish can really stand up to water interests so thirsty they are willing to invest billions.
But for now, I'm pinning my hopes for our Yampa River on the razorback sucker.