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Living on borrowed water

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Sarah Jane Keller | Apr 29, 2013 12:30 PM

Last June, poor runoff from an abysmal snowpack was turning Colorado’s Yampa River into a hot cesspool, pushing trout and mountain whitefish to the margins of survival. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the city of Steamboat asked anglers and flotillas of tubing tourists to stay away, to avoid stressing the Yampa’s overheating and oxygen-deprived fish.

For long-time recreation outfitter Peter Van de Carr, last summer was looking a lot like 2002, when the Yampa’s flow dropped so low that the river smelled like rotting seaweed, as he relayed to Sandra Postel at National Geographic’s water blog. In June, with no overheating visitors lazing down the river, the local paper ran a photo of a tanned Van de Carr sitting among coolers and boater accouterment as he strummed his guitar during a slow day at the shop. He told Steamboat Today that he was playing “the stinking river blues.”

Then, on June 29 the river began to rise, but it wasn’t from the rain everyone had been waiting for. The water was coming from Stagecoach Reservoir, and it was arriving through unusual means. With drought bearing down on the Yampa, the Colorado Water Trust, a non-profit that facilitates water rights transactions on behalf of rivers, scrambled to secure the lease of 4,000 acre feet of unused water from the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. The water came from a large lease that wasn’t renewed with the water district from the year before, and the Colorado Water Trust put up about $130,000 of private funding from the their partners, and $10,000 from the city of Steamboat to lease it.

It was the first time anyone had used a flexible piece of 2003 Colorado water law, which lets farmers, ranchers, water districts, and others temporarily lease water to the state to help keep rivers flowing. The law was passed on the heels of the 2002 drought, but it took last summer’s extreme conditions, legal expertise and fundraising from the Colorado Water Trust, and cooperation with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state engineer’s office, to put the law to work on the Yampa.

The law that the Colorado Water Trust brought to life is an extension of Colorado’s 1973 instream flow program meant to keep some water flowing in rivers. That program grew out of the recognition that the way water laws worked in Colorado encouraged sucking rivers dry. For example, the idea that water has to be put to “beneficial use” usually means taking it out of the river and doing something with it, leaving little behind for rivers. But the instream flow program made keeping water in the river a beneficial use as well.

“We’re using a system that has customarily been used to move water out rivers to move water back into rivers,” says Amy Beatie, the executive director of the Colorado Water Trust.

Part of the challenge in getting water back into rivers has simply been making people or agencies with water rights aware that they have the option to lease water back to the river. Beatie says that many people they interacted with last year weren’t aware of the water trust, or how it operates (it’s market-based, voluntary and confidential).

But even if you knew about the Colorado Water Trust, why lease valuable water? There are times when people might not need their full share, and would benefit by leasing it in the short-term. For example, if there’s a water shortage and an irrigator can’t get their full allocation, they might decide that it’s more economical to lease their water, rather than invest in staff and equipment during a year when they wouldn’t get to grow much anyway. Agencies can help too, like last year when the Bureau of Land Management found extra water that they will lease out for the Colorado River near Kremmling.

While most water users may be holding onto their resources tightly during drought, the Yampa lease shows how a windfall of water can help carry a river through. The Colorado Water Trust rolled out its request for water again this year and they are also likely helping the Yampa again this summer. The group is also focused on longer-term water transactions, like placing water rights into conservation easements. But even with the money and expertise to put water back into rivers, there’s another long-term challenge—getting enough people to think that water is doing valuable work even if it’s just flowing downstream.

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News intern.

Photo of the Yampa River running through Dinosaur National Monument courtesy of the National Park Service.

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