Large boulders lie exposed on the banks of the Elk River just north of Steamboat Springs this week. This year's mild winter and limited summer moisture have resulted in lower-than-typical river flows in the area.

Photo by John F. Russell

Large boulders lie exposed on the banks of the Elk River just north of Steamboat Springs this week. This year's mild winter and limited summer moisture have resulted in lower-than-typical river flows in the area.

Head gates, pumps shut down on Elk River north of Steamboat to protect baseline flows

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Editor's note: The Colorado Water Conservation Board holds the water right that protects baseline flows in the Elk River, and the board's recent call on the Elk is administered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources. That information has been corrected below.

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Water Commissioner Brian Romig checks some paperwork before heading to check out an irragation ditch on the lower Elk River.

District 6 State Water Engineer Erin Light confirmed this week that her office has shut down a number of irrigation pumps and head gates along the Elk River north of Steamboat Springs in the past 12 days as it invokes a state law that protects baseline flows in the river that is a major tributary of the upper Yampa River.

The Elk just above its confluence with the Yampa was flowing at 29 cubic feet per second Tuesday morning, well below its median flow of 100 cfs for the date. That compares with the Yampa River at Fifth Street in Steamboat, which has been boosted by dam releases and was flowing Tuesday morning at 95 cfs, well within the range of its median of 107 cfs for Aug. 28.

Water Commissioner Brian Romig has shut down eight ditches because they had no flow-measuring device to confirm the water rights holder was not taking more water from the Elk than he or she was entitled to. In addition, Light said, Romig has pulled 20 pumps from the river. That step was taken because the pump owners did not have a decreed water right, did not have a measuring device or were removing water under a right that was junior to the Colorado Water Conservation Board's right to protect a baseline flow, which dates back to 1977.

In two cases, Romig required water users to reduce the amount of water they were taking out of the river.

“Our water commissioner has been up there putting in a valiant effort to reduce any diversion that might exceed their water right,” Light said. “There’s no doubt there have been reductions of flows of senior water rights by now because there wasn’t a flow-measuring device or it was installed improperly.”

Matt and Christy Belton, who ranch on the lower Elk River, enjoy senior water rights but found themselves among those who had a pump shut down this month.

“What we discovered is that (Romig) is really holding people accountable who don’t have a measuring device for their water,” Christy Belton said.

She said she and her husband thought that because the pump they were using to get water to cattle on an upper meadow has a maximum capacity, it was in effect a measuring device.

“We’re under the impression that the volume of water going through the pump is a measuring device in itself,” Belton said. “He didn’t agree and shut us off. That was just Friday. Matt went over and checked it, and it was tagged, so Matt called him. It’s Brian’s contention it doesn’t serve as a measuring device.”

Even though the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s minimum flow right is junior to most of the agricultural water rights along the Elk, it takes precedence when those rights holders do not use proper measuring devices on their head gates, Light explained. An improperly installed flow-measuring device can indicate that a water rights holder is removing more water than he or she is entitled to, she said.

Water rights holders have the opportunity to correct the situation that led to their water being turned off, and she met with several of them Aug. 24 to consult on the process, she added.

Matt Belton said his pump is the only way to get water to his cattle in the field where they were grazing because of its elevation above the river.

In the meantime, the cattle are walking to and from the Elk River to drink, putting more pressure on the ground near the river. Consequently, he said, he wants to get an approved flow meter on his pump sooner rather than later.

Christy Belton said that she understands that Romig has a difficult job and that she and her husband were among those in the agricultural community who attended a meeting on water rights management in early summer at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.

“We knew that was coming this year,” she said. “The water’s low. If we need to get a measuring device, we’ll get one. It’s a lean water year, and we like to play by the rules.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board has the right to put a call on the Elk when its flow dips below 65 cfs, Light said. But that doesn’t mean the result will be that the river is restored to that level. So far, she said Romig’s efforts have increased the flow of the river by 6 to 10 cfs, and he may not be able to find much more water that can remain in the Elk in order to protect the natural systems.

“The little bit of water Brian’s getting out there right now, it’s going to be so small. It’s a sad situation on the Elk River,” Light said.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board could have invoked the baseline stream rights on the Elk during the drought in 2002, when a low flow of 10 cfs was observed Aug. 28. However, the Colorado Water Conservation Board had not thoroughly considered the implications and did not take that step, Light said.

“The Colorado Water Conservation Board put a lot of thought into this, and they always contact our office first,” Light said.

The enforcement of water rights comes at the end of the irrigation season when most of the hay crop has been harvested and irrigators are turning water on their hay fields to generate some regrowth in order to pasture cattle and to demonstrate continuous use of their water rights.

Still, ranchers and farmers have expressed some displeasure at the action.

“We’ve definitely had a lot of complaints,” Light said. Romig "sent an email to all his water users, and he seems to have gotten a good response. There weren’t as many unhappy people as we thought” there might be.

The net result of the August 2012 call on the Elk River, Light agreed, may be that in the long term, irrigators more closely will follow protocol on their head gates and pumps.

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

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