Shell stakes claim to Yampa River

Energy company files for water rights for future oil shale needs

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Look for an in-depth article about Shell Frontier's plan to store Yampa River water in Moffat County's Cedar Springs Draw in Sunday's Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Shell Oil's filing Dec. 30 for significant water rights in the Yampa River raises the possibility that a man-made lake larger than Stagecoach Reservoir someday could be built in the sagebrush and juniper country of Moffat County.

Shell Frontier Oil and Gas filed in water court in Steamboat Springs last week to stake its claim to withdraw 375 cubic feet per second from the Yampa during high flows fed by snowmelt in the spring and early summer.

Shell Spokesman Tracy Boyd said the recent filing is part of his company's multi-decade effort to build up multiple sources of water for oil shale development.

"Our whole point is to create a diverse water system," Boyd said. "We've been accumulating rights for many years so that we can provide for a sustainable resource and minimize impacts on other users."

The withdrawal from the Yampa would take place far downstream from Steamboat Springs, but the 375 cubic feet per second being sought is comparable to a typical flow one might expect to find passing beneath the Fifth Street Bridge in early to mid-July.

Water would be taken out of the river at one or two pumping stations about 75 miles west of Steamboat Springs. It would be stored in a reservoir capable of holding 45,000 acre-feet of water in Cedar Springs Draw, off the main stem of the Yampa.

That reservoir's potential size compares to the 33,275 acre-feet of storage in Stagecoach Reservoir near Oak Creek and 25,450 acre-feet in the newly expanded Elkhead Reservoir near Craig.

Jim Pokrandt, of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said his agency likely would register its opposition to the application - not necessarily to block it but for an opportunity to influence the terms of an approval.

A decision about building the reservoir probably would not come for another 10 years, Boyd said, with permitting and development of the reservoir adding more years to the timetable for completion.

"The decision to build the reservoir and take the water would be contingent on the ability to begin commercial production" of petroleum products from oil shale, Boyd said. "That would probably not come until the middle of the next decade or a little later."

Producing energy from oil shale is expected to consume large amounts of water. The reasons vary among oil companies, but in the case of Shell, water consumption is driven primarily by the need to separate petroleum products as they come out of the ground, Boyd said.

However, the energy demands of future oil shale production also are expected to require significant amounts of Western Slope water, according to recent findings of a public study group.

Erin Light, Division 6 water engineer for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said Shell's application for surface water and water storage rights, if granted, would represent a conditional right or placeholder. Its new water rights would ensure the company a rank in the state's water priority system, pending the day when it might actually put the water to use.

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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