Steamboat Springs As the city of Steamboat Springs considers adopting a water dedication policy, some fear such a law could spawn a local water rights market and inadvertently encourage the drying up of Routt County's cherished agricultural open spaces.
"There's always a concern of water going out of ag, for sure," said South Routt rancher Dean Rossi, who noted that while other areas of the state have very active water markets, the Yampa Valley does not. "We're still immune to a lot of that stuff that goes on on the Front Range. : I'd have to be awful destitute to sell the water rights off my land."
As currently drafted, the city's water dedication policy would require developers to bring water rights - or money to help develop the city's existing water rights, through means such as infrastructure - to the table as a condition of annexation. The policy expresses a strong preference for actual rights before a fee in lieu, and also prefers pre-1922 water rights.
That year is a sharp dividing line in regional water policy. The 1922 Colorado River Compact allocates 75 million acre-feet of water throughout any 10-year period, or about 7.5 million acre-feet annually, from Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming to Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada.
Water rights filed after 1922 are junior to the compact, meaning they are subject to its fulfillment.
At a recent meeting of the Steamboat Springs City Council, resident Mary Brown said the only place to find senior water rights, older than the compact, is on agricultural land.
"They're going to dry up a farm somewhere. That's just how it works," Brown said. "Eventually, by requiring the delivery of wet water to the city, you are promoting the drying up of ag land in the county. : I think it will have far-reaching, adverse consequences."
As a result, Brown said, the city would be better off accepting cash to firm up its existing rights. A recently adopted Steamboat Water Supply Master Plan concluded that "the city and the (Mount Werner Water and Sanitation) district have a reliable long-term supply source : capable of meeting projected demands throughout the next 20 years," but that it should "increase redundancy in the community's water supply."
"I think that Steamboat probably has enough water rights for a long, long time down the road," said Rossi. "That's where they need to concentrate their efforts."
Others, including Councilman Steve Ivancie, said they would prefer a stricter policy that brings actual raw water to the table. Ivancie also spoke out against a clause in the draft policy that would give council authority to accept other considerations in lieu of water rights.
"This policy should be as airtight as possible," Ivancie said.
Resident Paul Stettner agreed.
"That just leaves the door wide open to politics and future abuse," he said. "Cash isn't going to buy you water unless you go buy bottles of it someplace."
Councilwoman Cari Hermacinski, who also raised the question of whether the policy would inadvertently dry up agricultural land, disagreed and said it is important to keep flexibility in the ordinance.
Boulder lawyer Fritz Holleman, the city's water attorney, said Friday that the issue is a valid concern.
"I think we do need to put in some additional language to address that," Holleman said.
Holleman said he has some ideas for discouraging developers from purchasing water off ranches, but he did not wish to be specific because he has yet to consult with city officials. The Steamboat Springs City Council is expected to discuss the policy in April.
Public Works Director Philo Shelton said the intent of the policy is not to have developers go out and purchase a random assortment of water rights throughout the valley. Rather, Shelton said the city hopes developers seeking annexation will dedicate the water rights tied to their land to the city.
"We want to make sure we get that piece of paper with the land," Shelton said.
When a parcel has no active water rights associated with it, Shelton said, the city likely will work out a different arrangement, as it has decided to do with the proposed Steamboat 700 development west of city limits. Instead of water rights, Steamboat 700 will be asked to pay for improvements that will allow the city to put existing water rights to use - such as those in the Elk River and Stagecoach Reservoir. The developers' payment will be based on a water demand study for the project.
"The issue with Steamboat 700 is that parcel has no active water rights," Shelton said. "Everyone is unique with their rights."