Steve Aigner: We need an airtight water policy

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On Tuesday, the City Council will consider a formal water dedication policy. On Wednesday, the Yampa-White River Basin Roundtable will listen to a report on how much reliable water from the Colorado River system the state still will have available to develop, given the completion of current diversions and the best scientific evidence on climate change. Because these two events reflect concerns about future growth, development and water, we probably should zoom in on beliefs, reliable yields of water supply, and uncertainties.

First, let's define two terms: acre-feet and reliable firm yield. An acre-foot is measured as the amount of water it takes to cover an acre 1 foot deep. For planning purposes, the reliable firm yield is the amount of water in acre-feet that is available in dry years.

Colorado and Yampa Valley water experts voice increasing concern about previous optimistic beliefs about the reliable yield of the Colorado River system and our valley's Fish Creek Basin, rivers and creeks. In Colorado, we believed we had an estimated 600,000 AF to develop, but during a 2007 trial between Denver Water and several Western Slope communities, experts on both sides agreed in their testimony that Colorado had only 159,000 AF left to develop, according a recent article in the High Country News.

We have endured the worst 10-year drought in the Colorado River's recorded history of a long wet cycle. Now, we wonder about the potential impact of a drier climate. Still, contrary to the very optimistic belief that Steamboat Springs "has sufficient water rights to service a community of 100,000+ people under drought conditions for 35+ years," the city's first Steamboat Water Supply Master Plan in December says we need a redundant water supply. By 2027, the increase in water demand from the estimated buildout and population growth of the west Steamboat Springs area will more than double, from 3,141 AF to 7,206 AF. Because the reliable firm yield of Fish Creek Basin is only 7,000 AF, we will need to rely on the water supply cushion of 3,000 AF to 6,500 AF offered by the Yampa River Basin and conditional rights to Elk River water.

We face several uncertainties - a drier climate, a fire in the Fish Creek Basin and a call on the 1922 water compact from lower basin states. Incidentally, the water level of Lake Mead, a reservoir on the Colorado River, is only 1,112 feet above sea level. At 1,050 feet, the federal government will cut water to seven states dependent on the Colorado River, perhaps triggering the water call, according to a Bloomberg News article Friday.

Citizens of Minturn know uncertainty. Last year, the Ginn Development Company successfully petitioned Minturn to annex its Battle Mountain project, a proposed 1,700 unit development, golf course and private ski area upstream of Minturn. Citizens in favor of the Ginn annexation countered a rumor that Ginn needed Minturn's water and could not develop without Minturn, saying "If Ginn cannot use Minturn's existing water rights, the Battle Mountain Project will develop a water supply for the Project from Ginn's new water rights that will divert water during the spring runoff and store it in reservoirs." This month, Larry Lorenti, who organized a referendum opposing annexation, wonders "Why Ginn is willing to spend $30.48 million to buy the Columbine Ditch for 1,300 AF water : didn't Ginn have enough water rights to supply the project?" That story appeared in the Vail Daily on Feb. 10.

Steamboat Springs' citizens need to encourage the City Council to minimize uncertainties and adopt an airtight water dedication policy.

Stephen M. Aigner, Ph.D., is the organizer for the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley.

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