Local rancher Michael Hogue checks an irrigation ditch on his property west of Steamboat Springs. Conditions are good right now, but the nearly bare slopes of Steamboat Ski Area, shown in the background, could signal a dry summer across the valley.

Photo by John F. Russell

Local rancher Michael Hogue checks an irrigation ditch on his property west of Steamboat Springs. Conditions are good right now, but the nearly bare slopes of Steamboat Ski Area, shown in the background, could signal a dry summer across the valley.

Water resources to be scarce across Colorado

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Rafters, from the front, Kyle Love, David Lathrop, Bud Whitehead, Maria Palmer and Louis Gutschenritter run the rapids along the Yampa River. However, rafters might have a short season this year because of below-average snowpack that could make for a dry summer and more demand for the valuable natural resource flowing downstream.

— Retired water commissioner Elvis Iacovetto, who managed irrigation ditches on the upper Yampa River for 24 years, told an audience Friday afternoon at Library Hall at Bud Werner Memorial Library that he never has seen spring stream conditions as bad as they are now.

“The worst drought year was 2002,” Iacovetto said.

This year is definitely going to be worse than that. “The (Yampa) river in Phippsburg right now, you could probably walk across it and not get your feet wet. It might have 10 (cubic feet per second) in it. It’s the worst I’ve seen.”

Iacovetto was among four speakers during the Northwest Colorado Water Forum hosted by the Community Agriculture Alliance, the Yampa-White-Green River Basins Roundtable, the Upper Yampa Stakeholders Group and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.

The half dozen kayakers who were playing in Charlie’s Hole in the Yampa outside the library during Friday’s conference might not have understood Iacovetto’s comments about the condition of the Yampa about 25 miles upstream. The Yampa was flowing at a healthy 1,200 cubic feet per second in town at 6 p.m. Friday. But the dwindling snowpack in the surrounding mountains suggests the river soon will drop dramatically.

Iacovetto explained to his audience that along the course of his former territory as a water commissioner from Yamcolo Reservoir on the Bear River all the way to Fish Creek in Steamboat Springs, tributaries typically increase the flow of the Yampa by tenfold by the time the river gets to Steamboat.

It’s the geography of the upper Yampa Valley that has helped its water users avoid the pain of a formal call on the river when a senior rights holder could cause junior rights holders to be forced to turn off their irrigation ditches, Iacovetto said.

“If it wasn’t for our irrigated land being so close to the river, the Yampa would probably have been under administration a long time ago,” Iacovetto said.

He explained that irrigators and municipalities down the course of the river to Steamboat benefit from return flows as each successive ditch pours back into the river rejuvenating the flow for the next user.

“Everybody keeps using the water over and over and over,” Iacovetto said.

This year, he’s not so certain the return flows will be sufficient to replenish the river.

“It’s really hard to plan a strategy on how to use your water every year when it’s a crapshoot,” Iacovetto said.

Fellow speaker Nicole Seltzer, executive director of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, said that as of Tuesday, Colorado’s snowpack stood at 9 percent of average, and Coloradans may have to adapt to increasing uncertainty in future years. At the same time, they’ll be confronted with making difficult decision about how to share water among a growing population, she predicted.

“It’s not good news this year,” Seltzer said. “Really, we never know how much water is going to be available from year to year. Just as last year was an exceptional year, this, too, is an exceptional year. Thank goodness the reservoirs are already full this year.”

Seltzer said some people on Colorado’s Front Range do not understand that 80 percent of the water available to this semiarid state comes in the form of snowpack or that the water that arises from streams in Colorado flows to 19 other states and Mexico.

“We have some pressing issues as a state that are important to think about,” Seltzer said. “Probably most important is population. A lot of people are going to want to come here. Growth is the engine behind our economy, and there’s not much you can do about that. So we have to talk about managing our resources.”

With the state’s population expected to double between 2008 and 2050, or by about 8.6 million to 10 million people, growing urban areas will consider the Yampa River a potential source for desperately needed water.

“That definitely affects you,” Seltzer said. “You have people looking at the Yampa as a possible source of water supply.”

The other speakers included Kevin McBride, district manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, and veteran water attorney Peter Ampe, of Hill & Robbins P.C.

Ampe talked about the origins of the West’s prior appropriation doctrine, which assigns priority to water rights holders who have the most seniority. But Ampe also painted a vivid picture of farmers and ranchers who have learned to gauge how much time they have left to irrigate their fields every season.

He described how, in time, irrigators grow familiar with the snowbanks that hold out the longest in the shade of a north-facing slope and how those snowbanks often take on the same recognizable shape year after year as they dwindle.

“They might know of a snow bank that takes the shape of a figure eight and know that, ‘When the eight breaks, I have a week left,’” to irrigate, Ampe said. Or, ‘When the tail falls off the horse, I have a week left.’”

Water users in the upper Yampa Valley will be keeping a close eye on those historic snowbanks in early summer 2012.

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

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