Community Agriculture Alliance: Common ground on water
As originally printed in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on November 3, 2021
Unless you’ve been avoiding the national news in recent months, you are well-aware of the ongoing drought gripping the Colorado River basin.
In September, the United States Bureau of Reclamation declared a Stage 1 water shortage on the Colorado River system, and in October, the bureau published a study showing that water availability in the Colorado River is likely to further decline over the next 24 months, meaning that deeper water shortages are probable.
A microcosm of the larger basin of which it is a part, the Yampa River basin is experiencing conditions similar to those in the Colorado. In 2021, for the first time ever, the Colorado Division of Water Resources proposed to designate the Yampa River as over-appropriated, meaning that available water supply in the river would not be adequate to meet the demands of all of those with a right to use it.
Indeed, many farmers and ranchers with junior irrigation rights went without water this summer. Had it not been for a Colorado River Water Conservation District program that provided Elkhead Reservoir water to a number of farms and ranches in the lower Yampa River, the hardship on the agricultural community would have been even more widespread.
Declining water supply has an impact not only on agriculture, but also on the environment and recreation. Low stream flows reduce the quality and quantity of habitat for fish and other elements of the aquatic ecosystem.
In recent years, flows in the Yampa River have been so low, and water temperatures have been so high, that the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife and the city of Steamboat Springs both frequently have closed sections of the river to fishing and other forms of recreation, a painful situation for river recreation businesses.
With farms and ranches, the aquatic environment, and recreation businesses all at risk due to declining water availability, Colorado water leaders should set a course of action that will bolster both the agricultural community and river health and river recreation. The forthcoming update to the Colorado Water Plan is an opportunity to outline this course of action. First adopted in 2015, the plan provides a blueprint for water management across Colorado.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board recently began the first update to the water plan, and likewise each of the state’s nine basin roundtables, including the roundtable for the Yampa, White and Green rivers, is updating its basin plan, known as basin implementation plans or BIPs.
Especially here in Northwest Colorado where farming and ranching and outdoor recreation are the pillars of our culture and our economy, it is critical to promote cooperative, flexible, and innovative water management that benefits both agriculture and river health and recreation.
Over the past several years, the Yampa/White/Green basin roundtable has done exactly that. The roundtable has sponsored studies of integrated water management in the Yampa and White rivers, and it has supported projects that modernize aging irrigation infrastructure, creating benefits for irrigators and steam health alike.
Through the update to the BIP and through the update to the state-level plan, the Yampa/White/Green basin roundtable and the conservation board, respectively, should continue this trend. Doing so could allow our communities to survive and thrive under more difficult water supply conditions in the future.
Drew Peternell is director of Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Program
Please send comments in before 11/15/21 on your Basin’s Implementation Plan.