Text Size

Site Search

Public Lands

HW Winter2018 FINAL2cover

Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

connectingdropslogo4.1Bringing you the reporting you crave over the radio airways with extras and archives on our website. Visit the audio archives or listen to the latest story on the connection between Colorado's forests, watersheds, and forest fires:

IMG 20180402 101801web

Water Education Colorado

Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable

By Jayla Poppleton

The Yampa, White and Green rivers in northwestern Colorado are part of the Upper Colorado River system. The Yampa and White's headwaters are in Colorado, while the Green makes a brief detour south from Wyoming, through Dinosaur National Monument where it is joined by the Yampa, then flows west into Utah.

The Yampa is the least managed river in Colorado. As Kent Vertrees, recreation representative to the roundtable, emphasizes, it's one of the last opportunities in North America for people to recreate on a wild river with its natural hydrograph still intact. This means the river's flow still fluctuates dramatically, which makes for more enjoyment, says Vertrees, an avid boater and manager of Steamboat Powdercats.

The small-scale diversions that do exist on the Yampa primarily serve irrigators. There are also some coal mines and a large power plant with water rights on the river. Though historically focused on agriculture, the basin's economy is now also heavily reliant on recreation.

Like the Colorado River's mainstem, the Yampa/White/Green basin's rivers are a sought-after resource. And because the basin is not growing as rapidly as some areas of the state, the roundtable is concerned it may not get a fair amount of water under the state's Colorado River Compact appropriation. In order to thoroughly assess its own future water needs, the roundtable is working on several studies.

One, the energy study, is a joint effort with the Colorado Basin Roundtable. Both basins overlay the Piceance Basin, a 6000-square-mile geologic formation that may be the largest source of natural gas in the country. The Piceance also contains oil shale. Both roundtables are concerned with the potential water demand associated with future energy development, likely the biggest issue facing both basins.

According to the study's first phase, completed in September 2008, energy development, particularly oil shale, could require hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water directly related to production. In addition, indirect demands for population growth associated with the oil shale industry would put pressure on small communities' infrastructure. Though oil shale is speculative, energy companies own significant conditional water rights on the Colorado and White Rivers. (See Colorado Basin Roundtable profile.) In addition, Shell Oil filed for a new water right on the Yampa in December 2008 in an ongoing effort to line up the water it would need to move forward.

But, as Dan Birch, co-chair of the joint Yampa/Colorado roundtables' energy subcommittee, says ‘If [oil shale development] is going to happen, it's out of our control. All we're doing is promoting good water planning.’ Birch, who is also deputy general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and one of the roundtable's representatives to the Interbasin Compact Committee, says the roundtable will advocate for a multiple-use project that would benefit existing uses if energy companies pursue a storage project to meet their water needs.

The roundtable also commissioned a study to further assess its agricultural water needs. As natural resources director for Moffat County, Jeff Comstock works for the organization that sponsored the funding request. He says the study, which should be completed by December 2009, will address existing shortages in addition to demand for possible future irrigated acreages. It will also assess the probable impacts of climate change and energy development on ag water.

T. Wright Dickinson, a rancher on the Green River and a governor's appointee to the IBCC says it's important to identify additional water for the ag sector now, before the state uses its final allocation under the Colorado River Compact. At that point, he says the focus of providing more water to accommodate growth would shift to ag water conversions. Dickinson says another aspect of the study is looking at what the effect on return flows will be if irrigation methods in the region-- now mostly flood irrigation-- change substantially. ‘We want to look at the effects on the Yampa from such things as irrigation efficiency or conversions from ag to urban, especially in the upper basin in Routt County,’ he says. According to Dickinson, conversion of ag lands could have unintended consequences on late season flows that could impact other uses, including low flow targets for endangered fish.

Geoff Blakeslee, the roundtable's environmental representative and Colorado Water Conservation Board member, worked with Vertrees on the roundtable's non-consumptive needs assessment. Blakeslee says the river's free-flowing character has sustained significant ecological features. As the Yampa River Project director for The Nature Conservancy, Blakeslee is currently engaged in protecting a globally rare riparian forest along the river.

Recreational uses on the Yampa are also diverse. A rich boating scene in Steamboat, the basin's largest city, is replaced by miles of fly fishing downstream of the Elk River. State parks in Hayden and Craig provide opportunities for flat water canoeing and trout and bass fishing. Downstream of Craig, a stretch of the Yampa through Little Yampa, Juniper and Cross Mountain canyons is being considered for wild and scenic designation; currently only the Cache la Poudre River in the South Platte River has been given such distinction. ‘It's a 3 ½-mile stretch of true wilderness-style boating, one of the gems of Colorado whitewater rafting and kayaking,’ Vertrees says.

To map the non-consumptive attributes in the basin, Vertrees and Blakeslee enlisted help through various workshops they hosted for recreational, environmental and wildlife experts. ‘Everyone thought it was a great opportunity and felt thankful for this process,’ says Blakeslee.

Both non-consumptive uses and future agricultural and energy needs will be weighed when the basin considers cooperating with any possible transbasin diversions to the East Slope. Delegates from the roundtable met with the South Platte Basin Roundtable at the request of the latter to discuss the South Platte's water needs in addition to a potential pumpback project on the Yampa. The Yampa Pumpback, studied by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, would take 250,000 acre feet of water from the lower Yampa, just upstream of Maybell, and pump it 200 miles east. A second proposed pumpback project would transport a similar quantity of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River in northeastern Utah, through pipelines across southern Wyoming, to the Front Range.

Currently, consumptive use on the Yampa is only about 10 percent of the river's flow. However, the river is governed by an agreement related to the Colorado River Compact that states Colorado must deliver a minimum of a half million acre feet past the Utah state line. The river's average flows, according to Dickinson, are between 1.1 and 1.2 million.

Though the roundtable hasn't taken a position on the projects, members are concerned. For one, the Flaming Gorge pumpback may be able to claim a priority date for storage and diversion from the 1950s when the Flaming Gorge's water right was formed. All of the Yampa's major projects have a later date. If a compact call is issued on the Colorado River by the lower basin states, the new projects would have priority.

‘We would be curtailed, and those new projects would be allowed to continue,’ explains Tom Sharp, chair of the roundtable and attorney for the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. ‘We don't like that at all.’

Sharp says the pumpbacks could also endanger a programmatic biological opinion related to endangered fish species, the same fish from the infamous 15-mile reach of the Colorado River. The agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives water users assurance that existing uses will continue and states the basin can develop another 50,000 acre feet without endangering the fish. The basin would like to reserve the right to develop that water itself while protecting existing uses.

Downstream of Maybell is also the launch site for the Yampa Canyon run through Dinosaur National Monument, one of the top ten overnight rafting destinations in North America, says Vertrees. Taking 250,000 acre feet out of the river at Maybell could be detrimental to the recreational industry there.

Finally, impacts on water quality in the lower reach are a concern. ‘Taking that amount of water out of the river reduces the dilutive effect on minerals in the water that may affect the fish,’ says Sharp.

While some people in the basin are adamantly against surrendering even one drop to the Front Range, others see how a project like the Yampa Pumpback could be beneficial to the basin. For example, the pipeline that would carry the water back to the Front Range could theoretically drop off water along the way.

Either way, the roundtables have no authority in and of themselves, asserts Birch. ‘But that gives them some of their strength. If you get the blessing of the roundtable for your project, it's basically the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.’

‘I just hope we can do our best to identify the most logical and sensitive options to manage environmental and recreational needs with future water development in the state,’ says Vertrees. ‘Maybe we'll recognize that we should just leave the Yampa alone. It's the last true wild river in the Upper Colorado River system.’




Social Media

Stay in touch and connect through:

FB-fLogo-Blue-broadcast-2 Twitter Logo White On Blue instagram    

Sign Up for our e-newsletter

learn more3learn more

 And view the latest issue of Headwaters Pulse, Water Education Colorado's monthly e-newsletter, here.


Click the icons below for videos about climate change, ranching and more; or audio from Water Education Colorado's Connecting the Drops radio series.

filmicon   headphonesicon

1750 Humboldt Street, Suite 200
Denver, CO 80218