STAGECOACH STATE PARK — State regulators in the Yampa River basin say most water users are now willingly complying with an order to measure how much water they are taking — an order once greeted with suspicion and reluctance. But challenges to compliance remain, including the cost of installing equipment.
Last fall, the Colorado Division of Water Resources ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use. Nearly a year later, most of those water users are embracing the requirement, according to water commissioner Scott Hummer.
“I am fully confident that over 90% of the people who have orders pending have either complied, are in the process of complying or have asked for an extension,” Hummer said. “So we are getting the cooperation and buy-in that we are requesting from our water users. They are understanding why we are doing it, at least in my area.”
Hummer is the water commissioner for Water District 58, which spans 400 square miles and includes all the water rights above Stagecoach Reservoir. He oversees between 350 and 400 diversion structures.
Measuring water use is the norm in other river basins, especially where demand outpaces supply. But the tightening of regulations is new to the Yampa River basin, and the order was initially met with resistance from some ranchers.
John Raftopoulos, whose family ranches along the Little Snake River, a tributary of the Yampa in Moffat County, said he thinks most irrigators are complying. His cattle ranch has about 15 measuring devices, and he has to install a few more to be completely compliant.
“I know (the state) has to use them. There’s no other way they can control the water; they’ve got to have the measuring device,” Raftopoulos said. “You just got to bite the bullet and install them.”
State law requires water users to maintain measuring devices on their canals and ditches, but this rule was not enforced in Division 6 — consisting of the Yampa, White, Green and North Platte river basins — because historically there was plenty of water to go around in the sparsely populated northwest corner of the state. Long seen as the last frontier of the free river, there has been little regulatory oversight from the state when it came to irrigators using as much water as they needed. But that changed in 2018 with the first-ever call on the river.
A call is prompted when streamflows are low and a senior water rights holder isn’t receiving their full amount. They ask the state to place a call, which means upstream junior water rights holders must stop or reduce diversions to ensure that the senior water right gets its full amount.
Although the order for a measuring device comes with a deadline and the threat of fines, Division 6 engineer Erin Light has been lenient with water users and willing to give them extra time to get into compliance. The process to request an extension is simple: A water user can simply email Light.
“If a water user is working with our office, we are not going to go shut their headgate off,” she said. “We are going to work with them.”
Light doesn’t have an exact count on how many water users have complied so far — water commissioners are working in the field this summer and haven’t had time to enter the most current information into the division’s database yet — but as of January, the Yampa had 49% compliance.
“I am not hearing anything (from water commissioners) about concerns of noncompliance. If there were problems, they would let me know,” Light said. “I have a fair amount of confidence that things are going well in all my areas as to compliance.”
Still, some worry that the cost of installing the devices — which in most cases are Parshall flumes — is too big a financial burden for some water users. The devices, which channel diverted water and measure the flow below the headgate, can cost thousands of dollars, which adds up for water users who need to install multiple devices.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable have teamed up in recent months to create a $200,000 grant program to help water users with infrastructure-improvement expenses. According to Holly Kirkpatrick, the communications manager for the conservancy district, water users so far have completed about $3,500 worth of work. That money will be reimbursed through the grant program.
“We expect to see a huge influx of applications as the season comes to an end,” she said.
In March, Light issued notices to water users in the other Division 6 river basins — White and Green — but decided to delay sending orders after talking with some who had concerns over the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a June letter to Light, signed by four water conservancy districts — White River, Rio Blanco, Yellow Jacket and Douglas Creek — representatives said they would be interested in seeking opportunities for financial assistance for their water users. Under the best-case scenario, it would take until spring to secure grant money and begin installing devices, the letter said.
“This year is a tough year to try and ask people to do anything above and beyond what they already have to do,” said Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts. “I know (Light is) willing to give extensions, but right now, our folks don’t need that additional financial or emotional stress.”
Colorado River Compact influence
Some water users have questioned why, after years of not enforcing requirements for measuring devices in Division 6, the state is now doing so. One answer is that more and better data about water use is becoming increasingly necessary as drought and climate change reduce streamflows, create water shortages and threaten Colorado’s ability to meet its Colorado River Compact obligations.
Division 6 has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as state regulators saw with the 2018 call, that dynamic is no longer guaranteed every year. As the threat of a compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.
A major unknown is what would happen in the event of a compact call. A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
State engineer Kevin Rein said that without knowing how much water is being used, it’s a blind guess as to which junior water users would have to cut back.
“We could see the (cubic feet per second) amount that the water right is decreed for, but we don’t know how much is really being diverted and we don’t know how much is really being consumed, so we don’t know what effect it’s going to have on meeting our compact obligations,” Rein told Aspen Journalism last week.
It’s a similar scenario with a potential demand-management program. At the heart of such a program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send as much as 500,000 additional acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to help the upper basin meet its compact obligations. Agricultural water users could get paid to take part in the temporary, voluntary program to fallow fields and leave more water in the river.
But before they could participate in a demand-management program, the state needs to know how much water that an irrigator has been using.
“The first thing we need is diversion records,” Rein said. “If there’s no measuring device, no record of diversions and somebody wants to participate, they are simply not going to have the data to demonstrate their consumptive use.”
Since nearly everyone is making progress, Hummer said he doubts that enforcement will reach a point where he has to fine someone for not measuring their water use. Still, the transition is a tough one for an area not accustomed to state government oversight of their ditches.
“We are just dealing with difficult circumstances within the whole Colorado River basin system that dictates change, and folks don’t like change, especially in rural areas,” Hummer said. “But it’s here and it’s not going away. The demand for measurement will become more stringent in the future, not less.”
Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times, along with other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 15 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Aug. 17 edition of The Aspen Times.