Doug Monger and Christy Belton: Protecting our water

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"Here is a land where life is written in water." - Thomas Hornsby Ferril

Ferril, Colorado's one-time poet laureate, could have had the Yampa Valley in mind when writing that line. Whether we're ranchers or retailers, miners or mountaineers, engineers or environmentalists, drillers or developers, precious water from our streams, rivers and wells is the most basic ingredient of life.

Here in Northwest Colorado, where some of the last unallocated water in Colorado remains, we've had several recent wake-up calls. Shell Oil's filing for additional water rights on the Yampa River for possible use in future oil shale production was one. The plan to pump water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir through Wyoming to Colorado's sprawling Front Range is another.

Reaction came quickly and forcefully as water users and providers, anxious to protect existing allocations and leave room for future growth, joined local governments in the region to seek legal standing in the Shell filing. Others wonder why no public meetings have been scheduled in Northwest Colorado about the project to divert some of Colorado's share of water stored at Flaming Gorge to eastern Colorado.

There's ample reason for concern along the Yampa and the White rivers. Beyond the specifics of water law, which may allow room for both proposals, there's concern about what either of the new diversions and additional contributing factors could mean to those of us who slake our thirst, irrigate our fields, and propel our economic lives with the waters of those rivers.

"The waters that surround us cannot simply be divided up, used and thrown away like commodities from a store shelf," former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wrote in his 2005 book "Cities in the Wilderness." "Everyone lives downstream from someone else, and how we use water in one place has repercussions throughout that watershed, for wildlife, for the land and for our own well being."

"Downstream" could mean many things if all that's planned for Northwest Colorado comes to fruition.

It could mean dramatically increased water demands from additional development of natural resources. Several recent studies, relying on estimates of energy and water demands of full-scale oil shale industry contained in the Bureau of Land Management's Programmatic Environmental Impact Study, suggest that. Although the industry has challenged those estimates, it has yet to tell us exactly what production level to expect. But attempts to secure additional rights seem to confirm increased pressure on local water supplies from commercial operations.

Add in expectations for increased population contained in the recent impacts study done for the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado. That growth, whether from energy development or other drivers, brings increased demand for water for new residents. If existing rights for municipal and industrial uses can't meet the demand, water that now sustains our agricultural economy will be in the crosshairs.

Then, there are fears about whether supposedly unallocated water really will be there when needed. Estimates of water still available in the Colorado River and its associated basins such as the Yampa and White vary widely. Respected water leaders such as Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, worry that in a dry year the river already may be over-allocated. That, too, may be a worst-case scenario but doesn't prudent planning demand that it be considered?

The list of other potential impacts includes water necessary to maintain endangered species, the necessity to provide agreed-upon deliveries to Arizona, Nevada and California, and the need to maintain the quality of the waters in these rivers if they're to continue to sustain healthy populations, economies and lifestyles.

Growth is preferable to stagnation, and resource development is a vital part of our economy. But we'll be well served by heeding the warning signs contained in studies done from perspectives as varied as the Yampa/White and Colorado River Roundtables, Western Resource Advocates, Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, the Rand Corporation, the BLM and other government agencies.

Let's support local governments and water districts fighting for our interests, join them in offering appropriate comments when these issues are considered, and work together to assure water is not an impediment to a prosperous and sustainable future for Northwest Colorado.

Doug Monger is a rancher, Routt County Commissioner, past president of Colorado Counties, current chairman of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a member of the Yampa/White Basin Roundtable.

Christy Belton is a Steamboat Springs area rancher and Realtor and an officer in the Northwest Colorado chapter of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

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