The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District is planning to update its master plan of the Yampa River in case of a drought.

Photo by John F. Russell

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District is planning to update its master plan of the Yampa River in case of a drought.

Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District plans for a long drought

Depite this year's wet conditions, officials prepare for a potential dry spell

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— The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District has embarked on an effort to improve the toolkit it would rely on to manage through a protracted drought the likes of which the valley has never seen.

Water Conservancy District General Manager Kevin McBride told the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that his agency wants to create a detailed mathematical model that would help it plan in advance to provide enough water for population growth and perhaps energy development in the face of a multiyear drought. He described a drought more severe than anything experienced by longtime Northwest Colorado residents or even their pioneer ancestors.

“We’re going to build a river model that takes into account water storage, dam releases and streamflows,” McBride said. “With this model, we’ll be able to evaluate major inputs and constraints on the river system. We think drought is the key issue.”

The river model is part of a three-year process to revisit the district’s master plan. The district is a state-sponsored agency that is funded by property taxes and the sale of water and hydroelectric power. It owns and operates Stagecoach and Yamcolo reservoirs on the Yampa River.

McBride’s recent presentations to the county commissioners and the Steamboat Springs City Council come a month after the district lost a court case with private landowners about plans to divert flows from Morrison Creek in South Routt County into Stagecoach Reservoir.

Many residents recall the severe drought of 2002, which was the most severe experienced in Northwest Colorado since the early 20th century. However, that drought lasted just one year, and scientists know that in earlier centuries, there were droughts of similar severity that persisted for a decade and longer.

“How big of a drought do you want to be safe for, basin-wide?” McBride asked the commissioners this week. “And what kinds of things do you think are important? With the river model, we’ll have a tool that can make these things become more clear.”

With that last question in mind, McBride said, the district will spend the balance of 2011 engaging communities, local governments and nonprofits to find out what priorities they have for the remaining unappropriated water in the Yampa River system.

“The gorilla in the room is the water required in the future for oil shale,” Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said.

He replied that his organization would rely on the energy needs assessment produced by the statewide water roundtables to plan for that part of the demand equation, and he added that Shell Oil recently revised its needs for oil shale significantly downward.

Commissioner Doug Monger, who also sits on the Water Conservancy District board of directors, agreed.

“We want to integrate with (the State Water Supply Initiative) and understand available supply and help our communities decide what the water needs of our constituents are,” Monger said.

Court challenges

The Colorado Supreme Court recently upheld a District Court ruling that found against the Water Conservancy District in a lawsuit about its plans to divert water from Morrison Creek into Stagecoach Reservoir to bolster its supply.

The court held that Stagecoach already held ample water to meet current demand.

In response to a question from county attorney John Merrill, McBride acknowledged the ruling was a concern in the context of the district’s desire to plan for lengthy droughts. However, he said he and his board think that the ruling in April was specific to the Morrison Creek plan and shouldn’t preclude them from planning for future water needs based on population growth projections. The district intends to fully justify the need for drought planning, he said. He added that plans to revisit the district’s master plan were well under way before the court made its ruling.

“We don’t have much storage to deal with a multiyear drought here,” he said. “Will current water law allow us to plan for a more severe situation? We think we should be able to.”

— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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