Water users in Yampa and Elk river valleys preparing for drought year

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the meeting was Tuesday night.

More than 150 people, many of them farmers and ranchers faced with the possibility a second straight season of extreme drought, squeezed into the Steamboat Springs Community Center on Tuesday night to learn how to get along in a new era of limited water for irrigating hay and watering stock.

Division 6 water engineer Erin Light told the gathering it could be worse.

“We really are fortunate up here in the Yampa Basin that we really have had the water we’ve needed,” Light said. “We’re just now beginning to see the beginning of administration” on the rivers and their tributaries.

That’s in contrast to Colorado’s Arkansas River, which has been administered since 1999 to ensure that water rights holders receive the water their seniority affords them, Light said.

She reminded her audience that her job is to manage water according to state statutes, which require that water rights holders be able to document how much water they are taking out of rivers and streams.

“You need operable head gates and a measuring device in order to divert in priority,” Light said.

And Water Commissioner Brian Romig left little doubt that, particularly on the Elk River, this summer stands to be another like the last one, when rivers and streams were unusually low and water was in tight supply.

"The Elk River will be on call this year. It will probably be on call every year,” Romig said.

He was telling those in attendance that after the Colorado Water Conservation Board invoked its right to keep a minimum streamflow of 65 cubic feet per second in the Elk to protect stream health in summer 2012, it’s almost certain, based on late winter snowpack, to reach that point again this summer.

Romig is one of seven water commissioners working for Light in Division 6.

It was Romig who closed down the irrigation ditches of some senior rights holders on the Elk River and its tributaries in August 2012 because they lacked the adequate flow-measuring devices he needs to ascertain whether irrigators are taking more than they are entitled to.

On Wednesday night, he offered his cooperation with irrigators and urged them to email him at brian.romig@state.co.us with questions and concerns.

Jackie Brown, of the Routt County Conservation District, said her office was working with the Federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and Trout Unlimited to provide financial help on a case-by-case basis to help people get adequate irrigation equipment in place.

Andy Rossi, of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said his agency had put together a mini-grant program that could offer a 50 percent cost share and pay as much as $500 per structure for installation of adequate water-measuring devices. Learn more at www.upperyampawater.com.

And Light said she is working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Upper Yampa District to tap into Parks and Wildlife water stores in Steamboat Lake reservoir specifically to be able to offer water augmentation plans to irrigators. It would offer some the ability to use more water than they otherwise would be entitled to by contracting with Upper Yampa District to release some of the augmentation water on its way to the thirsty Elk. Her office can be reached at 970-879-0272.

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

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