Community Agriculture Alliance: Your Water Conservancy District in action
March 22, 2018
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District is the local water conservancy district. What exactly is a water conservancy district? Our mission charges us "to responsibly conserve, protect and develop the water resources of the Yampa River Basin."
It's important to understand what that meant in the past to know what it will mean in the future. In the Yampa Basin's past ranchers watched as vast quantities of water flowed downstream during spring runoff and, in dry years, left little to use for growing hay, cattle, or anything else during the summer.
Conservancy districts were formed to conserve or store some of that runoff in local reservoirs for local use. People's livelihoods depended upon reliable water supplies.
Today, traditional water needs have been joined by new uses including power plants, snowmaking, fishing, rafting and other environmental values. UYWCD stores water in Yamcolo and Stagecoach reservoirs providing water for drinking, household use, growing crops, power plants, snowmaking and recreation.
Recently it has also been used to bolster environmental flows in the Yampa River during dry times. Yet with all these uses, the amount of stored water in the Yampa River watershed is so small that the Yampa is often referred to as the last undammed river in the Colorado River drainage, and it is one of the few rivers in Colorado that maintains its natural flow pattern.
To better understand our constituents, the Upper Yampa District conducted a mail survey of more than 400 residents in 2017. Survey results showed that district residents are concerned about meeting future water needs for both people and the environment. Sixty-one percent of district constituents are confident our area has enough water for its current needs, but only one-quarter were even somewhat confident that our area has enough water for the next 50 years.
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Those worries are not unfounded. Regular drought is a certainty in the American West. Recent widespread drought in the multi-state Colorado River basin — to which the Yampa River contributes significant water — resulted in annual flows 19 percent below last century's average, according to 2017 Colorado State University research. Planning for consistent water supplies in the face of variable weather is a water manager's primary duty.
To that end, the Upper Yampa District works to ensure we can meet current and future water needs, even during drought. Yamcolo Reservoir is used annually to supply irrigation needs in South Routt, often nearly drained in dry years. Stagecoach Reservoir, built in 1989 and expanded in 2011, is the home of Stagecoach State Park. It provides important backup supplies to many uses. It has been called on infrequently because it is a backstop, but modeling results show that during long-term dry periods, there is not sufficient supply.
The greatest use of Stagecoach water to date has been to provide environmental flows: since 2012, partnering with the Colorado Water Trust, the UYWCD has released 3.08 billion gallons of water when river flows drop low enough to threaten the fishery. The district's work also ensures we are protecting the quality of the Yampa River, helping produce a state of the watershed report in 2014 and supporting a cooperative monitoring program that continues today.
In the future, competition for water will only increase as our own communities grow and entities in downstream states and east of the continental divide look for new supplies.
The UYWCD also represents our area's interests at the statewide level by participating in long-range planning efforts. In the coming months, the district will propose methods to ensure we can meet future needs. We welcome the involvement of our constituents, and encourage you to reach out to us. Learn more at upperyampawater.com.
Kevin McBride is the general manager for the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
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