Steamboat Springs A landmark agreement unveiled last week could make talk of massive pipelines and trans-mountain diversions from the Yampa River nothing more than water under the bridge.
At least for the foreseeable future.
Local water policy experts say the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, announced Thursday in Tabernash and touted as a historic framework for future collaboration between Front Range and Western Slope water interests, has little, if any, direct impact on the Yampa River and its tributaries in Northwest Colorado. The agreement primarily addresses Denver Water, metro area suburbs and their interaction with municipalities and river managers along the Colorado River.
But easing water policy tensions along the Colorado likely could have a trickle-down effect on the Yampa.
While the Upper Yampa and Northern Colorado water conservancy districts are not participants in the agreement, the districts’ interests are deeply intertwined with those who are. In recent years, for example, the Northern Colorado water district has studied the potential for a trans-mountain diversion, or pumpback, of Yampa River water to the Front Range. One hypothetical project proposed diverting Yampa River water near Maybell, in western Moffat County.
Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the Colorado River District, said last week’s agreement, a deal several years in the making, cools pumpback proposals.
“I think it takes the heat off, for the time being, for trans-mountain diversions,” Birch said.
Part of the reason for that, Birch said, is that the agreement obligates Denver Water to share treated wastewater with metro area suburbs, which accept conditions in order to tap into that supply.
“For any new water service like that, those entities are obligated to agree to abstain from pursuing further trans-mountain diversion projects,” Birch said. “I don’t know that this (agreement) is an absolute prohibition, but it does take a lot of the pressure off in looking at a trans-mountain diversion.”
Talk of pumpbacks also has cooled recently because of the multi-billion-dollar costs of such projects, the recessionary economy and other factors.
“I don’t know of anyone else stepping forward at this stage of the game seriously talking about a Maybell pumpback,” Birch said. “I just don’t see anything happening in the near-term out of the Yampa.”
The agreement announced last week requires approval from Western Colorado municipalities and water entities. But Birch said its progress toward keeping water battles out of the courts represents a significant step forward for the region and the state.
“It really is an unprecedented agreement,” Birch said. “For the West Slope and the Colorado River Basin, it’s much better off with that agreement than without.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall expressed his support for the agreement last week.
“With our state’s population set to double by 2050 and water supplies already stretched thin, Coloradans must work creatively and collaboratively on our shared water challenges,” Udall stated in a news release. “I commend the Western Slope water users and Denver Water for working together. Their process sets a new tone for water conversations across the state by seeking cooperation and not litigation.”
A report the federal Interior Department released last week highlights the increasing scarcity of water supplies across the West.
The report said annual flows in the Colorado, Rio Grande and San Joaquin river basins could decline by 8 to 14 percent during the next 40 years, according to The Associated Press.
The heavy runoff flowing down Northwest Colorado mountains this spring might seem to belie that forecast. But Kevin McBride, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said one season doesn’t create a climate trend.
“I would say we’re into the classic difference between climate and weather,” McBride said. “My understanding of climate change is that it’s going to bring more extremes — and we already live, as we all know, in an extreme climate.”
McBride said the Upper Yampa district is beginning a three-year master plan process that will include examination of long-term climate factors.
District officials plan to discuss water issues with the Steamboat Springs City Council on May 17 in Centennial Hall.
— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 970-871-4233 or email mlawrence@SteamboatToday.com