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terrays | Jan 13, 2009 10:15 AM

Shell Oil has filed a claim on about an eighth of the spring flow in Colorado's Yampa River. The company hopes to divert the water to an as-yet-nonexistent reservoir near the town of Maybell in the northwest corner of the state. From the 45,000-acre foot lake, the water would flow to oil shale operations and be put to a variety of ends. It might be used for processing the shale itself or generating electricity, or for dust suppression and slaking the thirst of employees.

It'll be awhile before Shell starts diverting the water. As the Denver Post reports, it's the first major claim on the river, and is likely to be challenged. But focusing too closely on the Yampa misses a larger point. Shell and other oil shale speculators, such as Chevron and EGL, have been collecting water rights on the Colorado and White rivers for decades in hopes of exploiting the near mythical shale deposits that lie beneath Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. Shell's Yampa maneuver is just the latest in a series of water grabs that could push the state up against its obligation to the Upper Colorado Basin Compact of 1948, and slurp the water from existing users in the process.

According to page 109 of a 2007 Colorado River Water Conservation District report, the state's annual water demand may currently fall about 300,000 acre feet short of the limit defined in the Compact. Bart Miller of Western Resource Advocates says that large-scale oil shale extraction could very well require that much water. If Colorado overdraws its share of the upper basin allotment, downstream states are sure to complain. Belts will have to be tightened in Colorado, and water rights could be tossed into turmoil. 

But it's not just a compact call that could rearrange Colorado's water. Though the oil companies hold about 50,000 acre feet of ditch rights on the western slope, they aren't currently exercising all of them. In water jargon, such unused rights are termed, "conditional." When the companies find a way to make a buck from the shale, they'll "perfect" those conditional rights and people drawing water from more junior claims -- or from water leased from the oil companies -- will have to seek water elsewhere. 

Oil shale development is a long way from commercial viability, but when and if the goo from the Green River Formation begins filling barrels, push will come to shove. Colorado will have to choose between many thirsty throats: farmers, municipalities, recreational and environmental concerns -- and dirty energy on the western slope. 

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