Water flows through the Elk River north of Clark on Wednesday afternoon.

Photo by John F. Russell

Water flows through the Elk River north of Clark on Wednesday afternoon.

Well permitting to tighten in North Routt County

Elk River’s over-appropriation grabs attention of ranchers

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Have questions about your well permit? Call division engineer Erin Light at 970-879-0272, water commissioner Andy Schaffner at 970-638-4470, or visit the Colorado Division of Water Resources website at http://water.state.co.us.

— Growth and development in North Routt County has increased the number of cups dipping into the Elk River, creating tighter permitting regulations after its entire basin is designated as over-appropriated as of Jan. 1.

“Make sure your well permit is in order,” advised Andy Sch­­aff­­ner, a local water commissioner for the state Division of Water Re­­sources.

The Elk River basin spans 460 square miles in northern and western Routt County. Water engineer Erin Light said the greatest potential impacts of the basin’s over-appropriation will involve well permits and ponds, which could see increased monitoring in future times of low water flows, such as late summer and fall.

After Jan. 1, Light said, no new, non-exempt well permit will be issued without a corresponding plan for augmentation. In other words, many of those who seek to use water in North Routt through a new permit will need to provide a means of supply.

That’s not easy in North Routt. Water users in some parts of Routt County — primarily, in low-lying areas along the main stem of the Yampa River — can obtain a contract for augmentation water from the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. But there’s no such availability on the Elk.

That could create permitting challenges for new businesses or developments in the area.

“Where the limitations start to set in is if you have a lot size less than 35 acres,” Light said. “You become very limited in your amount of use.”

The basin’s over-appropriation is stirring talk along Routt County Road 129.

“There’s people that own property up here that have been wondering if they could get their well permits,” said Sandy Greenway, manager of the Glen Eden Resort in Clark. “There’s been quite a bit of discussion about it.”

Greenway said the Glen Eden Resort has been discussing the situation with Schaffner and shouldn’t be negatively affected. John Fisher, manager of The Home Ranch across the road, said impacts could be mild, if any.

“We do irrigate our hay field up here with water from the Elk River. It just is going to require better management of water,” Fisher said. “Our rights are fairly senior, so we don’t anticipate a huge impact on our property, but there’s others downstream that could have difficulty.”

Light and Schaffner talked Wed­­nesday night about over-appropriation’s potential impacts at the Steamboat Springs Com­­­­munity Center to a crowd of about 50 people that included ranchers, property owners and others interested in a river that’s feeling the affects of growth.

“It’s been inevitable for years,” South Routt resident Bill Chase, who long has been involved in local water issues, said about the Elk’s over-appropriation.

Light said the Colorado Water Conservation Board made a call about the Elk this fall, from Sept. 15 to Oct. 7, after the river’s flow rate dipped below 65 cubic feet per second.

A “call” on a river can require release of water from holders of water rights that are junior to the party making the call. Light said entities including Strawberry Park Hot Springs and Marabou Ranch were affected by the call, which was triggered by the conservation board’s monitoring of the river’s flow.

Ebb and flow

Light noted that the over-appropriation status impacts users only during times of low water flows, especially when those flows trigger a call. Water use and storage largely is unaffected during times of heavy flows, such as spring and early summer.

But in an over-appropriated basin, even homeowners can feel the pinch.

Light said residential property owners with wells that use less than 15 gallons per minute can be held to in-house use only during times of water shortages.

“That really means in the house,” Light said. “You’re not going outside to fill up your hot tub, you’re not going outside to wash your car.”

The city of Steamboat Sp­­rings has water rights along the Elk River.

Discussions of developing those rights increased in the past year. Light said the city’s rights date to the 1990s.

While developing infrastructure for relatively junior water rights on an over-appropriated river might seem like a questionable investment, Light noted that the city could store water during times of high flows.

“They’re going to have to rely on the storage component of that water right,” she said.

The Yampa River has been over-appropriated through Steam­­boat since July 1, 2006, largely because of the city’s recreational in-channel diversion for boaters and floaters.

Light said water users in North Routt seeking new permits do not have to physically have that permit before Jan. 1 — they just have to apply for the permit by then to avoid the tighter regulations of the new status.

She also noted that people still can apply for new water rights in the Elk River basin. Such a right could have value in future years, she said.

“This designation does not affect existing water rights,” Light said. “This designation does not prohibit people getting water rights.”

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