Steamboat Springs — With spring runoff uncharacteristically underway on the first day of spring, officials from the Colorado Water Trust, city of Steamboat Springs and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District have begun tentative talks about renewing the seasonal water releases from Stagecoach Reservoir that bailed out the town stretch of the river in 2012 and 2013.

If the need to boost the river flows materializes this summer, there may be a couple of new wrinkles in the plan. A representative of Southwestern Energy, currently drilling a handful of exploratory oil wells in Routt and Moffat counties, said Wednesday his company is offering water it has under contract in Stagecoach as part of its Echo Energy program designed to conserve water in the valleys where it works.

Zach Smith, staff attorney for the Colorado Water Trust, which facilitated and funded water contracts that kept the Yampa in healthy flows during the drought year of 2012, and again in 2013, told the board members of the Conservancy District Wednesday that while no decision has been made to supplement the Yampa’s flows again this summer, they wanted to have agreements in place to allow that option by late May.

“We want to ask you all to permit (Conservancy District Manager) Kevin (McBride) and Southwestern to start discussing a possible one-year lease for 2015,” Smith said. “We’re not 100 percent sure we’ll actually need the water in 2015.”

The District’s board, which authorized the sale of about 4,000 acre-feet of water to the Water Trust for about $135,000 in 2012, was open to talks.

Smith added that Southwestern had approached the nonprofit Water Trust about the possibility of getting involved in the 2015 program.

“We’ve pledged as a company to be neutral as far as use of fresh water in all our operations,” Southwestern’s Mark Boling told the Conservancy District Board. “We want to do that watershed by watershed. We’ve made this pledge, and that’s why we’re interested in this project.”

Boling said Southwestern is using less water right now than it might have had oil prices not dropped so precipitously in recent months.

Deliberations about whether to engage with the Water Trust again this year to boost the Yampa’s flows are a little trickier than they were in 2012 and 2103 because this year represents the third in 10 that water managers here have made use of a 2003 state law that allows temporary leases of water to protect rivers threatened by drought. The law provides that the temporary leases can only be used three years in 10.

The temporary leases must be applied to stretches of live streams where the Colorado Water Conservation Board holds a minimum streamflow right. In the case of the 2012 and 2013 Water Trust leases, that stretch was a relatively short reach of the Yampa between Stagecoach Reservoir (the source) and Lake Catamount.

That made the additional flows intended to boost the Yampa in the city of Steamboat Springs and beyond its western limits to its wastewater treatment plant, vulnerable. However, the strategy succeeded in making meaningful difference in the town stretch of the river.

Water officials working on a tentative lease for Steamboat this year asked out loud Wednesday if the 2003 law permits them to manage the three-in-10 clause by taking water from different “pools” of water within Stagecoach, or with purchases from different owners. The question is whether those strategies would be regarded under the law as creating unique three-in-10 time frames — essentially allowing the short-team leases.

City of Steamboat Water Resources Manager Kelly Heaney said she is researching the possibility of leasing additional water needed for dilution of effluent at the wastewater treatment plant as a municipal use, not subject to the three-in-10 constraints.

Steamboat Today
Tom Ross
Original article