Drought Watch 2012: Water leases save Yampa River this summer

Editor’s Note: This is the 12th in a series of articles that the Summit Daily will run over the summer to keep the community informed about ongoing drought conditions in the county.

As Colorado watched state snowpack report maps change from a dull yellow to bright red at the end of 2012’s spring, Yampa River flows at Steamboat Springs dove from 501 cfs on June 1 to 42 cfs on June 27. On June 28, when flows on the Yampa average near 1,000 cfs, Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District began releasing water from a pool of 4,000 acre-feet the Colorado Water Trust (CWT) and Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) leased for instream flows. Since that day, flows through Steamboat Springs have ranged from 72 cfs to 138 cfs, staving off what might have been a disastrous summer for the Yampa River.

To date, CWCB and CWT have entered into three such leases in two different water divisions in the state, with several more still in the negotiation and approval stages. In addition, Colorado Parks and Wildlife worked directly with CWCB for a lease of water out of Lake Avery for the White River. But the lease with Upper Yampa, officially approved by the Division of Water Resources on July 11, represents the first use of a drought-response law crafted after the drought of 2002.

These voluntary, market-based transactions form the heart of CWT’s mission: to restore and protect streamflows using such solutions. We are neither an advocacy nor a policy group, but a Denver-based nonprofit organization dedicated to using existing tools within the prior appropriation system to rewet dry streams statewide. Founded in 2001 by a group of water attorneys and engineers, CWT also facilitates the permanent transfer of senior water rights into the CWCB’s Instream Flow Program.

During the 2002 drought, water users and water practitioners realized there was no quick legal way to lend water to rivers and streams during times of need. In response, the 2003 Colorado State Legislature passed a law allowing water users to temporarily loan water to streams through an expedited state administrative approval process. In 2007, additional provisions were added to the statute to prevent injury to a water right during a temporary loan.

Droughts have significant impacts on Colorado’s rivers and wildlife, creating significant problems that cause reductions in the populations of aquatic species. Reduced stream flows and warmer air temperatures cause the water temperatures in streams to rise, which lower the water’s oxygen concentration and impact fish metabolism (ability to breathe, break down and use food, and get rid of wastes). Lower water volume limits the ability of fish to move up and down the river. As the river continues to dry and heat up, already stressed fish must retreat to deeper pools, where they face increased risk of parasitism and predation, as well as increased competition for scarce food resources. Yet even these pools can dry, leaving fish with nowhere to go. An entire age-class of fish can die, impacting future population rates, and possible extinction of isolated populations.

In the spring of 2012, water availability forecasts began projecting a drought season due to low snowpack and runoff levels. Recognizing the opportunity to use the 2003 statute for the first time and keep water levels healthy in some of Colorado’s rivers and streams, CWT initiated a pilot program: Request for Water 2012. CWT put out a “Request for Water,” offering to lease water from interested water users. Eighty-seven water rights from six of the state’s seven basins were offered for lease in the pilot program. There was a great deal of interest in short-term leasing, but only a fraction of the offered water rights met the strict statutory requirements.

Although the summer season is coming to a close, CWT continues to analyze water rights offers that trickle in. However, because the drought is expected to continue through November, our focus is shifting to next year. Until a break in the drought, CWT will hope for snow, but continue leasing.

Look for this column every Monday throughout the summer. Articles will focus on drought, water conservation and the perspectives/realities of water management in Summit County.

Due to drought conditions in the Blue River watershed, water providers in Summit County

are implementing increased levels of water conservation. Please go to your water provider’s website to see how these changes will affect you. For additional water conservation tips, visit www.blueriverwatershed.org.

Summit Daily
Zach Smith and Edalin Koziol