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Facing severe droughts along Colorado’s Western Slope, state officials want to take better stock of how much water people, businesses and governments take out of the White and Yampa rivers, both of which flow into the historically low Colorado River.
The White and Yampa rivers traditionally supply a comfortable amount of water compared with other waterways across the state, according to Jeff Lukas, a Lafayette climate consultant and former water scientist with the University of Colorado Boulder. But that’s not as much the case recently.
“The whole Colorado River system is on the wrong side of the knife’s edge in the first part of the 21st century,” Lukas said.
Over the last two decades, the Yampa’s average flow decreased by about 6% from its 20th-century average, Lukas said. And the White’s average flow decreased by about 19%.
So officials with Colorado’s Division of Water Resources want to better track who’s taking water from the rivers — and its tributaries — and how much. Better tracking there would bring the division’s northwest region into line with the rest of the state, where that type of data collection is already more common.
Division officials are hosting stakeholder meetings in the region to develop rules by which water usage will be measured and hope to have the process finished by the end of next year, state Engineer Kevin Rein said. And as more data flows in, the state can better allocate water to those legally allowed to take it, an increasingly precise task as droughts continue to plague the Western Slope.
And in the bigger, and unprecedented, picture, if Colorado is called to work with upper- and lower-basin states because not enough water is passing southwest through the Colorado River, it will need that concrete data in hand, Rein said.
“We just need to know where it’s going,” Brain Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, said. “Every drop counts when it comes to water.”
The process underway in northwest Colorado is part of an increasing nationwide trend to better track water use as droughts become more common, Fuchs said.
One key indicator that water is tighter in northwest Colorado is that senior water rights holders along the Yampa River are more frequently calling state engineers to shut off supply for junior rights holders until their thirst is quenched, according to Erin Light, water division engineer for the region.
The first ever call like that on the Yampa came in 2018, Light said. Another followed in 2020 and then another this year, both of which only ended after Colorado River conservation officials agreed to release water from the Elkhead Reservoir, northeast of Craig.
Water shortages and calls like those can spell trouble not only for those in Colorado but also millions more downstream.
Water from the Yampa and White rivers flows into the Colorado River and ultimately into Lake Powell, making up to a fifth of the reservoir’s water supply each year, Lukas said.
The reservoir, which sank to its lowest level on record this year, supplies water to about 35 million people, irrigates millions of acres of cropland and generates billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.
While calls from senior water rights holders come each year — even in non-drought years — along the Arkansas, Rio Grande and South Platte rivers, Rein said “it’s a new thing to the Yampa.”
“It’s unfortunate,” Rein added.
Not only are those rivers drying due to climate change but more water is allocated from them than the rivers actually have to offer. And now the historically water-abundant Yampa, which is also over-allocated, appears to be joining those ranks, Light said.
“It’s not even just increasing water users but it’s also consumptive use,” Light said. “As our temperatures increase, our crops need more water.”
Accounting for water
As Colorado’s rivers dry up, like the Ogallala Aquifer on the eastern plains or Georgia’s Lake Lanier, for example, governments across the country are working to take better inventory of their water supply, Fuchs said. When those water shortages arise, people start to ask where the water went and who took it.
“All of a sudden these questions are starting to be asked and (governments) can’t really put those cards on the table because they don’t have them,” Fuchs said.
The same logic applies when states strike deals with each other over rivers that cross their borders, Fuchs added. The states not only want to make sure they’re following the agreements but also that they’re keeping as much water as possible.
Colorado’s northwest region represents a gap in the state’s inventory.
As of April, only about 54% of the structures used by water rights holders in Light’s region, which covers Craig and Steamboat Springs, have devices to measure their water usage.
For comparison, about 95% of the structures in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins to the southeast have measuring devices, the Summit Daily reported.
In late 2019, Light ordered hundreds of water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices and then in March 2020 she issued formal notices for others along the White and Green rivers to follow suit, the Summit Daily reported. And Light’s office is now holding stakeholder meetings this month across the region as they look to cement consistent rules for what kinds of devices can be used, how they should be maintained and how they measure water use.
Rein said he hopes that the rule-making process could be finished by the end of next year, but he doesn’t want to rush it.
Howard Cooper said he received one of those notices last year and installed head gates and flumes at all the points where his Three Crown Ranch, east of Meeker, diverts water. The mechanisms are designed specifically to measure the flow of water through them.
The installation cost about $25,000, Cooper said. And state officials didn’t help supplement any of it. But still, he said he supports Light’s efforts to better track water use.
Cooper’s ranch, which supports about 100 cows and calves, has held water rights for about 60 years. And better tracking could come in handy in case a more junior water rights holder or someone new to the area tries to cut into the ranch’s water supply, he said.
“It allows me to take what I have a right to take and provides proof of use,” Cooper said. “That’s good.”
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