Steamboat water attorney Tom Sharp is proposing a five-party exchange of water rights, which would affect the various water supplies in Routt County, including Stagecoach Reservoir.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Steamboat water attorney Tom Sharp is proposing a five-party exchange of water rights, which would affect the various water supplies in Routt County, including Stagecoach Reservoir.

Deal would give city Steamboat Lake water storage rights

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— Steamboat attorney and regional water guru Tom Sharp has proposed a five-party water rights exchange that could prove to be a lower-cost alternative to solving some of the region's water priorities.

If realized, one end result is that the city of Steamboat Springs would receive as much as 2,000 acre-feet of storage rights in Steamboat Lake to augment its 8 cubic feet per second flow in the Elk River. That would save the city the cost and difficulty of building its own new reservoir on the Elk. Augmentation of the city's Elk River water right is necessary for the city to bring the water into the municipal water system, which is necessary for development in western Steamboat and the city's goal of reducing its near sole reliance on the Fish Creek watershed.

Sharp said the city's 1999 Elk River water right could be curtailed during low flows because the Colorado Water Conservation Board holds a 1977 in-stream flow right on the river. If flows in the Elk drop below 65 cfs, junior rights such as the city's would be shut off - unless water could be released from a reservoir to augment flows.

"I think this is a way to get a storage amount on the upper Elk River that could be made available for augmentation," Sharp said Tuesday. "Obviously, a city needs to have a year-round firm yield of a municipal water right because people need to be able to count on it every day. : The city has been thinking about how it can augment that 8 cfs water supply. They're very interested in the concept. It would replace the need for new reservoir storage."

City officials confirmed they are interested in the concept but said they will have to weigh it against all available alternatives. Public Works Director Philo Shelton said the cost estimate for a new 1,500-acre-foot reservoir is $12.5 million. Shelton said the city has not identified a location for such a reservoir, but he said it would be upstream of the city's diversion point on the Elk River at Routt County Road 44.

"The city's been looking at Steamboat Lake for years," said Fritz Holleman, the city's water attorney. "The possibility to use that to augment our Elk River rights is an obvious option. There's lots of different ways Steamboat Lake could be used, and Tom Sharp has laid out one way."

The exchange involves the city, Xcel Energy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Colorado River Water Conservation District and Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. Water rights would be shuffled between Elkhead Reservoir near Craig, Steamboat Lake in North Routt County and Stagecoach Reservoir in South Routt County.

Officials with the other parties said Friday that they have not had time to review Sharp's proposal in detail and offered only preliminary impressions of it.

"We are in receipt of the e-mail and proposal from Mr. Sharp, and we are looking at it internally at this point," Tri-State spokesman Jim Van Someren said. Under the proposal, Tri-State's contract rights in Stagecoach Reservoir would be moved to Elkhead Reservoir, which is much closer to the Craig Station power plant they are associated with. "It might have some potential for Tri-State to improve and benefit our situation up there," Van Someren said.

Jim Pokrandt, spokesman for Colorado River Water Conservation District, said the district is interested in the proposal but needs to consider several issues and take the idea to its board of directors. The river district owns the rights in Elkhead Reservoir that would be leased to Tri-State.

Also through the complex exchange, Xcel Energy's contract storage rights in Steamboat Lake would move to Stagecoach Reservoir, and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District would receive the rights in Steamboat Lake that could be contracted to the city. Sharp said he thinks the exchange provides advantages to all five parties, but he also acknowledges there are several challenges to it including money and contract terms.

Shelton said that although the proposal could save the substantial cost of building a new reservoir, that option still might be preferable so the city could own its own water rights in perpetuity rather than leasing them.

"This is something we could look at as an alternative," Shelton said. "It's definitely an option."

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