Steamboat Springs “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting.”
You’ve heard the proverbial quote before, and you will hear it louder and more often in the Yampa River basin. Western water law, state water compacts, water policy and the implications of this public resource will continue to be extremely complex and highly charged into the future. Western water “grabbing” wars began in the mid-1800s. Periods of truce can last for decades, but every so often, the combatants take up arms and battle ensues. In the past, the Yampa River was not a direct target because of its geographic isolation.
Past generations of Colorado’s policymakers and engineers — at times rough, ruthless and known as “water buffaloes” — have had their way with every other river on the Western Slope. Today, there are more than 20 major trans-basin diversions taking water from Western Slope rivers to the highly populated Front Range. The Yampa River, aside from a few small dams, has been free to flow, but as populations grow on the Front Range and downstream Western states, the Yampa River water and its water rights likely will come under fire.
By 2040, Colorado’s expanding population is projected to be more than 8 million, and 80 percent of the population, including its voting power, will live in 12 of the Front Range counties. Based on current and projected water supplies and conditions, a significant gap will occur between supply and demand.
The historical status quo for meeting the water gap has been the purchase and transfer of ranchers’ and farmers’ water rights for municipal and industrial demands. Were it not for the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which divides the Colorado River’s water between the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah) and lower basin states (California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico), Colorado would be in command and able to impound all available water. The 1922 compact requires the upper basin states to deliver to the lower basin states 75 million acre-feet of water for consumptive use averaged throughout a running 10-year period. The Yampa River’s portion, per the 1948 Upper Basin Compact, is 500,000 acre-feet annually to be delivered to the Green River.
In May, Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order and charged the Colorado Water Conservation Board to develop a statewide Colorado Water Plan by 2015. In turn, through the board’s basin roundtable process, each basin is required to develop its Basin Implementation Plan to be integrated in the state plan.
The governor’s order already is creating a call to arms in the Grand Valley. Managers of 10 Grand Valley agencies and municipalities are considering a Not One More Drop club as a response to the governor’s demand for a statewide plan. A clear stance of no further diversions of water from the Western Slope to the east slope and the reallocation of state’s water is not the solution to the growing problem.
In August, the Yampa-White Roundtable initiated its Basin Implementation Plan. Like the water stewards of the Grand Valley, opinions and apprehensions about possible short- and long-term implications of the governor’s order to the waters of the Yampa River basin are growing louder. All indications are that the fighting about Western water will intensify, but our Yampa River basin “water buffaloes” are a formidable foe, and we remain hopeful the whiskey doesn’t dry up.
Ren Martyn is an advisory board member for the Community Agriculture Alliance, board member of the Yampa-White Roundtable, a Realtor who specializes in water properties with Prudential Steamboat Realty and president of Finger Rock Preserve, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-approved wetland mitigation bank. For more information about the Yampa-White Roundtable and the Basin Implementation Plan, contact Ren Martyn at 970-879-4546 or firstname.lastname@example.org.