Twenty of the West’s Leading Water Managers Raft Colorado’s Yampa River — Smithsonian

July 7, 2015
Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

From Smithsonian.com (Heather Hansman):

We had come to the canyon that the Yampa carved through ancient Weber sandstone on a raft trip, to talk about the future of wild rivers, and rivers in general. Advocacy groups Friends of the Yampa and American Rivers decided that the best way to talk about water issues was on the water. So they pulled together 20 people who have been making decisions about water in Colorado, and in the West, for the past 30 years—the head of Denver Water, former Deputy Secretaries of the Interior, ranchers, power plant managers and environmentalists—and a few journalists like myself. They tempted them with the idea of running an untapped river, and then stuck everyone in boats for five days so they had to talk to each other.

The Yampa flows from the high country near Routt National Forest, past power plants and ranchlands, into Dinosaur National Monument where it joins the Green River at Echo Park. It hits the main stem of the Colorado just over the border in Utah. Even though it’s not dammed anywhere, it’s used by almost all the major groups who depend on river flows: farms, fish, cities, industry, recreation and power. The coal-fired Craig Power Plant is its major consumptive user. Endangered fish like the Colorado pikeminnow depend on its flow. Along the way it irrigates pasture lands and provides flows for kayakers. And, if it continues to run free—hence the flow-dependent bathtub ring—it can be a model for fish habitat and smart agricultural use…

On the river, as we floated through the folded geology of the canyon and stopped to scout rapids, we talked about those questions. At night, people pulled up chairs around the fire, cracked beers and tried to explain their priorities. We talked about risk management and sharing the burden of drought. The most heated topic was transmountain diversions of water across the Continental Divide, and how to avoid them.

The Yampa, and with it the state of Colorado, is a microcosm of river management. Colorado has to send almost half of the water that falls in the state downstream. To complicate things, the state’s water law is legally layered and hard to change. This spring, a bill that would allow Colorado residents to collect rainwater failed to pass, because it was argued that it could injure downstream water rights.

“It’s just like balancing a checkbook,” says Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Based on the last 16 years, nature has provided a flow of about 13 million acre feet of water at Lee’s Ferry [just below Glen Canyon Dam], and our estimate is that we’re using about 15 million. Since then, we’ve overused the system by 30 to 32 million acre feet, which we know because we’ve drawn down storage by that amount. We started with 50 million in the bank, now we have about 18. The system is heading for zero.”[…]

Water rights are also based on a use-it-or-lose-it principle of beneficial use. In theory, or maybe in the 1920s, that sounds good, because it implies that if you’re using a lot you must need a lot. But now it means that senior rights holders—corporations, irrigation districts, water departments and others with earlier and higher priority rights that get their share of water first—are unlikely to use less water than they’re allotted, for fear they’ll never get it back. It makes conservation unappealing, because by using less, you could be selling your security blanket down the river.

“Everybody is trying to pressure dreams from the past,” says Jay Gallagher, from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, after the boats were pulled up on the beach one day. “They want security for today and something left over for tomorrow. That’s the root of the emotion around water, the fear of losing it.”

That’s particularly true on the Yampa, which feels like the last of a dying breed. The Colorado itself has been so allocated that it no longer flows to the Pacific, and other western rivers, like the Dolores, in southern Colorado, are considered dead, because only a trickle flows past the dam. The Yampa is the only one that has remained untouched despite proposals to siphon off or dam up its flow.

Conservation across all facets of the water system, from farming to lawn watering, could stanch the bleeding, but it’s tricky to ask people who have a legal right to a certain amount of water to give it up. To change both perspective and use patterns, you have to make the greater good also good for the individual. Kuhn says that basically comes down to money—you have to make it financially smart for water users to conserve…

Kuhn is trying to outline the clearest ways to make conservation financially appealing. There is talk of setting up a water market, where willing sellers and buyers can trade water rights. “Those plans are moving at a snail’s pace, but the conversations are happening,” he says. People on the trip are also working together on smaller, creative projects. Blakeslee is fallowing parts of the ranch he manages to try to conserve, while American Rivers is working with ranchers to create manmade riffles—small rapids where fish can find food—on streams to build trout habitats without diverting any water.

On the Yampa, despite the disparate intentions, there was more teamwork than infighting. “Overall the average amount of water we recieve each year is still below our needs,” Kuhn says. “What we need to figure out how to do is live within our means.”

One evening on the banks of the river, Matt Rice, the director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Program, brought out a bottle of beer he’d been saving. “It’s called ‘Collaboration Not Litigation,’” he said. “And I think we should all have some.”

More Yampa River Basin coverage here.


Yampa River is one of the top 10 threatened paddling classics according to @CanoeKayakMag

February 19, 2015


Steamboat Springs: The city and Yampa Valley Housing Authority collaborate on project

February 17, 2015
Steamboat Springs

Steamboat Springs

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

The city of Steamboat Springs and the Yampa Valley Housing Authority are advertising for bidders on a water and sewer project in Fish Creek Mobile Home Park that would combine replacement of the city’s sanitary sewer interceptor that happens to run through the park, while accomplishing a much needed replacement of water and sewer lines to park’s 67 mobile homes.

“Talk about a partnership — the city has been terrific,” Housing Authority Board Chairwoman Kathi Meyer said Monday. “The city’s departments that do the bid work and public works have been very helpful in putting this together.”

Combining the city’s sewer interceptor project with water and sewer line replacement for the homes in the mobile home park, which is owned and managed by the Housing Authority, represents an economy of scale, Meyer said. It will allow the successful bidder to stage the job site once for both jobs and avoid incurring the extra expense of disrupting homeowners’ driveways and retaining walls twice.

Replacement of the city sewer interceptor already was on its list of prioritized capital projects. Merging the two projects required multiple departments having the will to “figure out how do we do it?” Meyer added.

The city loaned the Housing Authority $954,000 in 2007 to help with purchase of the mobile home park from Bob and Audrey Enever, who had owned it for 33 years. The Housing Authority took out an additional bank loan of $2.58 million, counting on lot rent to cover the debt.

Everyone involved understood that the park’s infrastructure was aging and required frequent repairs, but the Housing Authority’s cash flow was tied up with debt service.

Three years ago, the Authority’s consulting engineering firm, Drexel Barrell, informed the board that it needed to replace the water and sewer lines.

“We knew it was original infrastructure. Some of the sewer lines run underneath the homes,” Meyer said. “Over the last eight years, there have been ongoing maintenance issues. We’ve been lucky that although breaks over the last few years have caused inconvenience to tenants, there hasn’t been a significant incident.”

Fortunately, prevailing lending terms allowed the board to refinance the original bank loan, this time with Alpine Bank, at a lower interest rate. The freed-up revenue stream allowed the Housing Authority to leverage a loan through the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority to fund the water and sewer work.

“The stars aligned,” Meyer said, securing an important source of workforce housing in the community for perhaps another 50 years or so.

More infrastructure coverage here.


CPW: Elkhead Reservoir and native fish to be discussed at open house in Craig

January 26, 2015

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife:

Residents of Craig and the surrounding areas will have the opportunity to discuss the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and Elkhead Reservoir fish management with several key partners during an open house, Thursday, Feb. 5, beginning at 6 p.m. at Craig City Hall, 300 West 4th Street.

The open house format will allow program representatives to answer questions and provide information about the multi-faceted program and its goals of protecting four endangered native fish – the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, bonytail and razorback sucker – found only in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

“People who attend will learn what they can do to help us achieve what we all want, that is to bring this recovery effort to a successful conclusion,” said Senior Aquatic Biologist Sherman Hebein of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We understand that people have questions and concerns, so we welcome this opportunity.”

Among the various topics up for discussion will be how Elkhead Reservoir’s predominantly non-native fishery affects local native fish populations, and actions that Recovery Program partners are taking to manage non-native fish populations in the Yampa River and throughout the upper Colorado River basin.

According to principal investigators working on native fish recovery, escapement of non-native fish such as northern pike and smallmouth bass, found in significant numbers in Elkhead Reservoir and several other waters in Western Colorado, are among the primary obstacles to the full recovery of the endangered fish.

“Non-native fish often escape from reservoirs, ponds and other bodies of water into rivers where they not only compete with natives for available habitat, they also eat them,” said Hebein. “Based on years of data analysis, we have determined that non-native predators are the main reason we have yet to fully recover our native fish populations. It’s a major problem that we can overcome, but it will take significant effort from the partners and cooperation from the public.”

Recent reports that the reservoir might be drained and chemically reclaimed to remove the non-natives led to much discussion and concern in the community; however, at a joint workshop with Moffat County Commissioners and the Craig City Council last December, Hebein announced that CPW and its partners are implementing the installation of a net across the reservoir’s spillway to reduce the number of northern pike and smallmouth bass that escape into the Yampa River. Netting the spillway would provide time to implement other non-chemical management actions to reduce the numbers of smallmouth bass and northern pike in the reservoir.

“We anticipate that there will be many questions about the net and Elkhead’s future,” said Hebein. “We look forward to the opportunity to explain the complexities of the issue to the public.”

Hebein says that the public will have the opportunity to provide both written and verbal comments during the meeting.

For more information about the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, visit http://www.coloradoriverrecovery.org/

More endangered/threatened species coverage here.


American Rivers partnered with Google to produce a Street View of the Yampa River #ColoradoRiver

January 14, 2015

More Yampa River coverage here.


“Our agriculture water is the low-hanging fruit” — J. Paul Brown

December 22, 2014
Basin roundtable boundaries

Basin roundtable boundaries

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Protecting Western Slope agriculture appears to be one area of agreement as the region looks for ways of speaking with one voice on Colorado water issues. That was one takeaway from what was effectively a Western Slope water summit held [December 18] in Grand Junction with the goal of presenting some consolidated messages on the state’s newly drafted water plan.

Members of four roundtable groups — representing the Gunnison and Colorado river basins, southwest Colorado and the Yampa, White and Green river basins — already have developed their own plans that were incorporated into the newly completed draft plan. Representatives from all those roundtables gathered Thursday to talk about common themes that have emerged that they can be jointly voicing to the rest of the state as a final plan is developed.

In the case of agriculture, Colorado roundtable basin chair Jim Pokrandt said it’s important that the state not engage in poor water planning that forces farmers and ranchers out of business.

Said state Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, who works in agriculture himself, “Our agriculture water is the low-hanging fruit. It’s the easy water to buy and that’s exactly what’s happened.”

He talked about a need for more Front Range storage of its own water and alternatives like bringing in water from the Missouri River “so you’re not buying that agricultural water.”

Jim Spehar, a former Mesa County commissioner and Grand Junction mayor, agreed about the importance of considering agriculture in state water planning.

“If this discussion isn’t done by and for agriculture I think it will be done to agriculture,” he said.

Thursday’s discussion also turned to other areas including municipal and agriculture conservation. Gunnison County rancher Ken Spann said one thing those in agriculture need to know is where any water they might free up from conservation would go. He’d like to see it help fill Lake Powell to help states in the Upper Colorado River basin meet interstate compact water obligations.

But he worries that instead it could just end up supplying another new subdivision, or perhaps simply being offset by new water use being sought in the Yampa basin, which would mean no net increase in Colorado River water reaching Powell.

“The trade-offs (from conservation efforts) have to be identified and we are now at the point where we have to do that or people won’t play,” he said.

Western Slope water interests plan to continue talking about seeking a unified voice on water, including by addressing issues such as a somewhat controversial proposed framework for discussing any possible new diversions of western Colorado water to the Front Range.

“This is just the start of the West Slope conversation,” said Moffat County rancher T. Wright Dickinson, who also sits on Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee, a statewide forum for discussing water issues.

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.


Powerful new film “Warm Springs” tells story of boating on the Yampa River

November 21, 2014

Originally posted on Your Water Colorado Blog:

It’s not everyday you get the experience of rafting through a powerful, Class IV rapid, on the peak of a free-flowing river’s annual runoff, in an epic water year. Although I’m not suggesting it’s a replacement for the real thing, a new film from Steamboat Springs-based Rig to Flip has made it possible to vicariously experience the power and awesomeness of one of the West’s most notable rapids through its recent release of a 20-minute film called “Warm Springs.” If you’re like me, the footage from their 2011 Yampa and Warm Springs run, when the river topped out at twice its average peak flow, is guaranteed to give you an adrenaline rush. That combined with historical footage of Yampa River rafting dating back as early as the 1950s and interviews with renowned river runners such as George Wendt, founder of commercial outdoor outfitter O.A.R.S., make this film a must-see.

To…

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