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Yampa River seen on Thursday, July 1, 2021, near Maybell. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The first public warning sign that the Yampa River in northwest Colorado was running out of water came during a scorching summer three years ago.

Cross Mountain Ranch, a sprawling cattle, guest and hunting operation near Maybell and the Yampa’s confluence with the Little Snake River, needed water to flood meadows for sheep and other livestock. 

But there was nothing left to divert into the ranch’s ditch at Lily Park. A state official’s snapshot from the time shows no Yampa there at all — just a gravel bar with a stagnant puddle at the base. 

The ranch may be far down river, but it’s high in priority. Under Colorado water law, that means the ranch long ago secured water rights that are vastly senior to many other users on the river. So if the ranch needs it, the state water engineer has to put a “call” on the Yampa and tell junior holders upriver to stop using, letting their water flow on toward Cross Mountain and the Utah border. 

Yampa division engineer Erin Light did just that for the first time ever in 2018. She has an 80-page list of descending water rights holders on the Yampa. The ranch is on page one. 

The easiest way to find enough water to meet the ranch’s rights was to call Craig Generating Station, a massive coal-fired electricity plant holding a variety of river rights and reservoir shares in the Yampa basin. The power station, managed by Tri-State Generation and owned by a variety of Western utilities, has been cooperative on water issues, Light said, and quickly sent more water downstream. 

Then it happened again in 2020. Drought. A nearly dry river by the time the Yampa neared Dinosaur National Monument. And an official state call. 

Fort Collins resident Kyle Evans fishes next to his dad, Bill Evans, of Denver, on May 24, 2021, on the tailwater section of the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir south of Steamboat Springs.(Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This year, the Yampa is looking severely troubled again. It’s no longer a fluke, but a trend. And so Light has asked her boss, state engineer Kevin Rein, to approve her 15-page memorandum and request declaring the Yampa officially “over appropriated.” 

Too many users have divided up the river’s dwindling water too many ways, and future ditch diggers and well drillers need to be warned. Dozens of new water rights applications hit the water court for Yampa claims every year, she added. 

Yampa not alone under drought pressure

The Yampa isn’t the first Colorado river to suffer the indignity of an official declaration of over appropriation. In fact, most of the major rivers were divided too many ways decades ago and therefore need to be managed down to the drop, from the South Platte on the Front Range, to the Arkansas and the Poudre. 

But the fact it’s happening to the Yampa, long running relatively wild and free through the thinly-populated open range of northwest Colorado, is a clear danger sign, according to state officials and conservation groups. Drought in the short term and climate change in the long term are overlaid by relentless economic growth throughout Colorado, turning debates over water use from a distant worry into a current event. 

Finding enough water for Yampa Valley users will grow ever more challenging as the seven Western states in the Colorado River Compact approach deadlines for mandatory changes in how the river’s bounty is distributed. The Yampa is one of many tributaries to the Colorado, running west to join the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. The Green joins the Colorado at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, with the merged waters meant to fill drought-stricken Lake Powell, and farther downriver, Lake Mead at Hoover Dam. 

Under the compact, Lower Basin states on the Colorado, including Arizona and California, could demand that Colorado’s state water managers leave more volume in the river, in order to fulfill obligations to growing cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles.  

“I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t predict the future,” Light said. “But certainly we are seeing a trend of less and less supplies and greater demand, and the more we see the trend in that direction, the more this is going to be the norm.” 

The ongoing drought promises to make disruptive water rights calls on the Yampa and other rivers more frequent. On Thursday, Gov. Jared Polis made 2021’s super-dry reality official for the Western Slope, declaring 21 counties in a drought emergency. Federal drought monitoring maps showed nearly 30% of the state in extreme or exceptional drought last week, including all of the northwest. 

“Mother Nature is telling us how it is,” said Mely Whiting, Colorado Water Project legal counsel for the conservation group Trout Unlimited. “We’re in a new territory here. At some point you’re using more water than you are allowed to use as population grows,” and recently, she said, it’s “happening way faster.”

Light’s detailed memo justifying the over appropriation declaration for the Yampa noted that water volume delivered by the river has fallen in recent decades from a norm of 1.5 million acre-feet a year to 1.1 million acre-feet. At the U.S. Geological Survey’s Maybell gauge on the Yampa on Friday, the river flowed at about 340 cubic feet per second, less than 16% of the median figure for that day in 105 years of recordkeeping.

Massive ranch needs big water

Cross Mountain Ranch owners did not return phone messages seeking comment about their water needs from the Yampa, and how they have handled recent years of low flows. The ranch, one of the largest in the nation with hundreds of thousands of owned and leased acres, went on sale for $100 million in 2017 with boasts of priceless water rights. 

The lower-elevation portion of the ranch along the Yampa and Little Snake is still for sale, with Mirr Ranch Group listing 28,000 acres of working sheep ranch property. The listing also includes more than 54 cubic feet per second of water rights from the Yampa. 

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

In her report, Light gives the ranch credit for not demanding a water rights call in every year of severe drought. In 2002, for example, rafting on the Yampa was shut down through Steamboat Springs, and reservoir water had to be released to get enough flow for power generation at Tri-State’s plant. The ranch had to turn off pumps at Lily Park to avoid damaging the machinery, but the diversion owners “opted not to pursue a call” that year, Light wrote. The ranch’s water right dates to 1886.

While water users like ranchers and power plants have been able to trade water or find reservoir backup supply on the Yampa in the droughts since 2000, such cooperation isn’t reliable on an overtaxed river with thousands of users, Light said.

So what would state approval of the over appropriation designation mean in practical terms for northwestern Colorado counties? Developers seeking to drill a new well in the Yampa Basin will see new state scrutiny of their plans to make sure they are not drawing down river water already owned by a senior rights holder. If Light thinks there would be damage, she can require the developer to augment the loss with a different supply, such as stored reservoir water or a pond capturing water during higher runoff periods. 

Water is released May 24, 2021, from the Stagecoach Reservoir flowing into the Yampa River south of Steamboat Springs. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Anyone with an improperly permitted well will also face new reviews, and demands for augmentation. Because of the way Colorado’s rivers and water tables behave, state engineers consider wells to be drawing down river water just as if they were taking it from the river’s surface. 

People could still apply for new surface rights from the Yampa, but they will be warned, Light said, that their supply is likely to run out by August or September when senior rights holders put in their call to protect what they need. 

Individual homeowners can still permit a new well in the Yampa Basin, Light said. State law considers a single home-use well on 35 acres or more to be “exempt” from appropriation rules. 

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“More straws in the ground”

That’s where it gets even more complicated, though, for economic development boosters in the northwest. While Routt County, home to Steamboat Springs, considers 35 acres the minimum lot size for subdivision, Moffat County to the west allows smaller lots.

“So that means there’s more straws in the ground,” said John Bristol, director of economic development for Steamboat Springs and Routt County. Bristol is part of a group trying to tie together Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties and their towns into the Northwest Colorado Development Council. 

Moffat County, for one thing, will need to create strong water augmentation plans for any new development it wants to do, Bristol said. And the counties’ fates are tied inextricably together, he added. 

The coal-fired power plants in Craig and Hayden that drive big employment with good salaries are on their way out; local and state officials need to replace those jobs with other industries or enterprises. Meanwhile, tourism growth in resort towns like Steamboat Springs drives demand for new housing in less expensive communities down river from Routt County. 

Bristol said he often thinks about an adage he attributes to former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, now the nominee for ambassador to Mexico. Salazar once said, according to Bristol, “when we divided up the state and across the West, we really should have thought in watersheds, instead of these random political boundaries. And that makes sense, because the workforce tends to mirror the watershed.” 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...