Community Agriculture Alliance: Whose water is it?


The Yampa River, from its beginnings in the rugged Flat Tops Wilderness Area to its convergence with the Green River in the desert region of the Colorado-Utah border, often is referred to as the life-blood of the community, as well as many biologically diverse ecosystems. Widely considered one of Colorado's last free flowing rivers, the Yampa is able to support a diversity of native life through seasonal flooding that perpetuates a so-called "river dance," thus facilitating the establishment of new streamside forests and wetlands.

Culturally speaking, Native Americans, most recently the Utes, used the Yampa River Valley for many centuries as summer hunting grounds. European fur trappers visited the area in the 1700s, with American fur traders arriving in the 1830s. When the Valley was settled in the 1870s, large cattle ranches dominated the area; domestic livestock have grazed in the Yampa Valley for more than a century. Early settlers depended on the Yampa for transportation and consumptive water needs, such as domestic and agricultural irrigation uses, as well as a food source. Today, water in the Yampa River continues to provide for our community in traditional ways and also in ways that often go unnoticed. Most of the basin's remaining ranching operations depend on the Yampa for irrigation, while towns and industries rely on this water for municipal and industrial uses.

Thinking about water for its traditional values began to evolve as early as 1897, when Congress adopted the National Forest Organic Act, which prohibited further homesteading and sale of forested watersheds. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this and other forest statutes did not create instream flow water rights for fishing and recreation within the national forests. Not until 1973 did the Colorado General Assembly pass the instream flow and lake level law allowing the Colorado Water Conservation Board to obtain water rights sufficient to "preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree." In 2001, Colorado's General Assembly adopted the Arkansas River Basin Pilot Water Bank and Recreational In-Channel diversion statutes, recognizing, for the first time, a water right for recreational uses.

We've witnessed the federal government and the state government make decisions regarding how water is to be allocated for use. So ... whose water is it? We often hear the term "Waters of the State" when referring to Colorado's water resources. Under Colorado law, ownership of water resources resides in the public domain. A water right is a right to use water as regulated by a legal framework called the prior appropriation system, and it is mandated by Colorado's Constitution. Water use in Colorado is further constrained by a litany of Congressional Acts and Supreme Court decisions prescribing the states contribution to interstate compacts, equitable apportionment decrees and treaties. Yampa River water flowing into the Green River, and subsequently out of Colorado, is making a significant contribution to our state's ability to meet its obligation under the Colorado River compact of 1922 and the international treaties with Mexico.

Based on information contained in the Statewide Water Supply Initiative report released in 2004, the Yampa is one of a few remaining rivers in the state with unappropriated surface water. In 2006, a feasibility study by the Northern Water Conservancy District determined that for a cost of just less than $4 billion, water from the Yampa River could be delivered to the Front Range to meet increased population demands. The SWSI report also predicted that we can expect the Yampa's basin-wide population to increase by 56 percent between 2000 and 2030. Because the SWSI report did not adequately address the potential for increased water needs because of accelerated oil and gas production or for specific requirements of current and future non-consumptive needs, further studies are under way to determine whether additional water supplies should be allocated.

"Nothing in the future will have a greater impact on our ability to sustain our way of life and preserve our environment for future generations than water."

- SWSI report-2004

Geoff Blakeslee is the Northwest Colorado Project Director for The Nature Conservancy. To learn about TNC's work in Colorado and around the world, visit


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