Water Commissioner Brain Romig checks a head gate for an irrigation ditch on the lower Elk River. Water commissioners shut down a number of irrigation pumps and head gates along the Elk River north of Steamboat Springs as it invoked a state law that protects baseline flows. Commissioners now will take a look at Yampa River head gates to protect flows in that river.

Photo by John F. Russell

Water Commissioner Brain Romig checks a head gate for an irrigation ditch on the lower Elk River. Water commissioners shut down a number of irrigation pumps and head gates along the Elk River north of Steamboat Springs as it invoked a state law that protects baseline flows. Commissioners now will take a look at Yampa River head gates to protect flows in that river.

Colorado Water Trust release to be protected in Yampa River

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Water Commissioner Brain Romig checks a head gate for an irrigation ditch on the lower Elk River. Water commissioners shut down a number of irrigation pumps and head gates along the Elk River north of Steamboat Springs as it invoked a state law that protects baseline flows. Commissioners now will take a look at Yampa River head gates to protect flows in that river.

Editor's note: This story has been revised to clarify that the Colorado Division of Water Resources contacted diverters above Lake Catamount before Friday asking them to not increase diversions.

Ranchers on the Elk River who recently were treated to a visit by the water commissioner will have some company from their Yampa River brethren.

District 6 State Water Engineer Erin Light said her department will protect a 26 cubic feet per second Colorado Water Trust release from Stagecoach Reservoir that has been in the river since June 28 on its way to Tri-State Generation, which operates the power plant in Craig.

Similar to the process that is happening on the Elk River, Water Commissioner Brian Romig will be checking to make sure senior rights holders on the Yampa are diverting the correct amount of water. If head gates do not have a measuring device or the device is not working properly, the gates will be shut.

Light said because this is only the second time the Yampa has been in this situation — the first was in 2002 — there are head gates that are not in compliance with the laws governing measuring devices.

“They’ve been of the mind, ‘If I don’t need it, I won’t put it in,’” she said.

Light said senior rights holders on the Elk have responded quickly when shut off.

“Some have installed measuring devices,” she said. “We have people turning back on.”

Until now, the Colorado Water Trust release hadn't been protected below Lake Catamount. The Colorado Division of Water Resources had contacted diverters above Lake Catamount to ask them not to increase their diversions. When the agreement was struck in the beginning of summer for the Colorado Water Trust to lease water, Tri-State was designated as the downstream rights holder.

The decision to protect an earlier release from Stagecoach and the Colorado Water Trust release were triggered by the need to allow the power plant to cool its coal-fired operations and maintain enough water for rights holders below the plant, according to Light.

Light said that the earlier release from Stagecoach came at a time when Tri-State needed water but that she preferred to release Tri-State water from Stagecoach and see how efficient her agency was at protecting it before beginning to protect the Colorado Water Trust release.

Now, Tri-State “is of the mind, ‘We want our Colorado Water Trust water,'" Light said. “If it’s not sufficient, we’ll look at other options.”

Tri-State also began releasing 10 cfs Friday morning from its stored water in Elkhead Reservoir. Releases from Elkhead Reservoir have been protected for a program aimed at the recovery of endangered fish species.

“We’re not adding any water to the system. We’re protecting water already in the system,” Light said about the Yampa. “This additional 26 cfs (for the Colorado Water Trust) has been in the system for other people to use. The person who has contracted the water wants it now.”

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com

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