Group to pay to keep water in Yampa, other state rivers

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Learn more about the Colorado Water Trust’s short-term leasing program at www.coloradowatertrust.org. Click on “program” in the phrase “Request for water program.” Scroll down to find links for the “initial offer form” and the “leasing terms and conditions” under the heading “Documents.”

— State and area water experts are preparing for what could be a repeat of summer 2002, when the Colorado Rockies endured one of the most significant droughts the region has experienced. There remains potential for the seasonal monsoon to come to the rescue in mid-July, but with April snowpack just a fraction of average, the U.S. Drought Monitor this week described much of Northwest Colorado as being in a short-term severe drought.

In a report dated April 24, the Drought Monitor, which is managed by several federal agencies, stated, “Snow water equivalent values in (western Colorado) generally range from 10 to 35 percent of normal.”

Recognizing the potential severity of the situation that could confront Colorado’s rivers this summer, statewide conservation organization Colorado Water Trust has launched an ambitious plan to preserve healthy flows in many of the state’s rivers by acting on a 2003 law that allows for temporary water leases without the need to go through water court. Amy Beatie, executive director of the Water Trust, said her agency intends to pay willing water rights holders to leave their water in the Yampa and White rivers, as well as 19 other rivers across the state.

The entire length of the Yampa is on the target list, as well as a major stretch of the nearby White River upstream from the confluence with Piceance Creek.

“The program is totally market based,” Beatie said. “We’re not going to ask anybody for a handout. Putting up hay has an economic benefit; we want to pay them cash instead. In essence, we’re proposing to pay people to grow water for fish.”

However, time is short. The Water Trust is asking prospective participants to go to www.coloradowatertrust.org and fill out necessary forms by the end of the day May 11. The Trust may extend the process to additional rounds of submissions later in the year.

Jay Gallagher, general manager of Mount Werner Water District, which generates Steamboat Springs’ domestic water supply, said Thursday that the snowpack on Buffalo Pass roughly mirrors conditions that were observed in 2002. Snowpack there stood at 51 percent of average Thursday, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. But on Rabbit Ears Pass, the water stored in the snow was just 19 percent of average.

Gallagher is keeping an eye on Buffalo Pass because it represents the drainage that fills Fish Creek Reservoir, the primary source for Steamboat’s domestic water. He said he’s not concerned that Steamboat could run out of water because there’s sufficient water in the reservoir to meet the community’s needs.

However, during a lawn irrigation season that could last four to six weeks longer than typical, there’s increased potential that Mount Werner’s Water’s capacity for filtering water will be taxed on days of peak consumption. That comes about when daily water demand can reach 7.5 million gallons, compared with a typical summer day when water users here go through 5 million gallons.

“We do have ample water, but we’re about to launch an education program,” Gallagher said. “The whole idea is to get people to change their habits.”

If his agency is successful, the conservation program will push back the day when the water district has to invest $1 million to expand capacity with an additional filtration bay at the water plant.

When the Yampa was hurtin’

The summer of 2002 was the season when hundreds of trout were stacked up in the Yampa River at its confluence with Fish Creek in Steamboat Springs. The Yampa had become so warm that it carried little oxygen, and the oxygen-rich, cold water pouring off the Continental Divide in Fish Creek meant survival for the fish. The former Colorado Division of Wildlife pitched in that summer by installing an aerator in the Yampa where the fish were gathered.

The intent of Beatie’s organization goes beyond supporting trout to protecting an entire river environment by keeping the streams flowing at healthy levels. Water Trust officials hope they can apply $400,000 in donations to the goal of keeping flows across the state at a little more than 40 cubic feet per second.

The Water Trust is offering three types of leases to be managed through the state’s minimum instream flow program. State law allows for temporary loans of water for instream flow use for a period of no more than 120 days in a given year.

Minimum available water amounts the Water Trust is willing to consider paying for are 1 cubic foot per second or 50 acre-feet of water in storage. However, Beatie encouraged neighboring water rights holders on a stream, for example, to pool their water to make a proposal to her organization.

“We’d like for people to become aware of this program through word of mouth, and we find the idea of people working together — from neighbor to neighbor to neighbor — enticing,” she said.

Gallagher said it’s not unlikely that Mount Werner Water will ask customers to comply with lawn irrigating restrictions this summer, moving to an every-other-day watering schedule, for example. But whether taking that step becomes necessary won’t be determined until early summer.

“It all depends on the monsoons,” he said.

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

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