Our View: Water right is invaluable

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Editorial Board, February 2009 through May 2009

  • Suzanne Schlicht, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Mike Lawrence, city editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Paul Hughes, community representative
  • Gail Smith, community representative

Contact the editorial board at (970) 871-4221 or editor@steamboatpilot.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

Five years after the city of Steamboat Springs filed for recreational water rights on the Yampa River, the value of that highly contested decision is becoming increasingly clear.

As more and more large-scale interests signal their desire to pull water from the Yampa, the city's recreational in-channel diversion, known as a RICD (rih-sid) and applied for in late December 2003, is proving to be a timely and essential tool for preserving flows through downtown Steamboat and protecting regional water interests.

Steamboat's RICD allocates water flows for recreational use on the Yampa through downtown, from April 15 to Aug. 15 every year. The application spurred hearty debates that ended with its final court approval in October 2005. Ranchers, particularly upstream in South Routt County, opposed the RICD for fear of over-regulation on the river. The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Upper Yampa Water Conservation District, the towns of Yampa and Oak Creek and three metro districts were some of more than 20 opponents to the RICD.

But it so far has not stunted growth in South Routt, which will benefit from a planned expansion of Stagecoach Reservoir, and already may have caused one thirsty Front Range water district to look downstream from Routt County.

Glenn Porzak, the city's water attorney, noted in 2007 and again last week that the RICD very likely prevented the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District from filing for a water right in Routt County. The northern district long has been studying the feasibility of a pipeline to carry Yampa River water to the Front Range - including one potential route that would pass through South Routt.

Porzak said the district was "forced to go below the city," downstream to the Maybell area in Moffat County, when studying pipeline proposals, because of the RICD decree.

Another large interest again is looking at Yampa River water but also is focusing on the Maybell area downstream of Routt County.

On Dec. 30, 2008 - nearly five years to the day after the city filed for its RICD - Shell Frontier Oil and Gas staked a claim of its own on the Yampa, filing for the right to pull water from two diversion points west of Maybell.

The application requests an allocation of 375 cubic feet per second "for industrial and mining purposes, including but not limited to drilling activities : power generation : and other activities in connection with the mining and production of oil and other products from oil shale."

The application includes a request to store 45,000 acre-feet of water in a reservoir that would be larger than Stagecoach Reservoir, which holds about 33,275 acre-feet. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough to meet the needs of a family of five for a year.

Erin Light, local water division engineer for the state Department of Natural Resources, estimated that it could take three years for Shell's application to become a decreed water right. And it could be several years after that before Shell is prepared to extract water from the Yampa.

It's true that Shell's filing does not impact water flowing through Steamboat, where the RICD allows nonconsumptive use for recreation. But again, the RICD likely was a factor in pushing Shell downstream for an application that indicates Shell is moving forward with oil shale research and development.

Just last week, the Bureau of Land Management announced a second round of land leases for that purpose.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a Boulder County Democrat, expressed cautious support for the BLM's decision and for "emerging technologies" in oil shale exploration.

"We need to determine whether it is technologically, economically and environmentally feasible to move forward on commercial oil shale development," he said. "These are important decisions that will not only affect our quality of life in Colorado, but could have a serious impact on our scarce water supplies."

There is no question that water needs in Colorado will continue to grow, for expanding Front Range communities to the east and potential energy development to the west. Caught in the middle, and with a summer tourism economy that revolves around a vibrant river, Steamboat's RICD already is proving its worth and showing that multiple interests - local needs, environmental goals and development - can be balanced effectively if a long-term strategic viewpoint guides initial discussions and decisions.

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