Connecting the Drops: Water Users on the Yampa Face Tighter Regulations

This story was recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists: Region 9 Mark of Excellence Awards 2019.

Earlier this year, the seven US states that depend on the Colorado River made history by agreeing to find ways to reduce the amount of water they draw from the river. This is against a backdrop of dwindling water supplies due to climate change and population growth. It is further complicated by the fact that in 1922, the original agreement or compact that divided the river between the 7 states, grossly overestimated how much water was actually in the river.

Water managers now have until 2026 to come up with a new set of guidelines to manage the River.  Those guidelines will include voluntary cutbacks of water use, however, mandatory cutbacks could eventually become a reality. A taste of what is possibly to come is visible on one of the Colorado River’s tributaries. For Connecting the Drops, Alejandra Wilcox reports. 

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It’s been called one of the only remaining free-flowing rivers in Colorado. The last frontier. The “wild west.” Water with few dams or reservoirs…and even fewer regulations. The snowpack-fueled Yampa River is a rare glimpse a century back in time.  The river’s basin, which includes the town of Steamboat Springs, is very different than the rest of the state. 

The Yampa, seen here flowing through Steamboat Springs, is considered one of the last free-flowing rivers in the state.

Scott Hummer is a water commissioner who patrols District 58 on the Yampa River. He’s responsible for making sure people are getting their fair share of water. If the Yampa is the “wild west of water,” Hummer is one of its defacto sheriffs. 

I’m going to be 60 in two weeks. The year I was born, the population of my hometown, Fort Collins, was 24,000 — and 3,000 of those were students at CSU. 50 years ago, when I was a 10-year-old boy, the population of Fort Collins was 43,000 people.” 

Fort Collins now has a population of nearly 168 thousand people. As of 2018, over five and a half million people live in Colorado. And that number continues to grow.  The bulk of the population growth will happen along Colorado’s Front Range and it is relying on water coming from the western slope.  

What new folks and especially folks along the Front Range don’t understand, especially newcomers, is that, that water — you know, Horsetooth, Carter, Boulder Reservoir —  where does that water come from? You Boulder County folks: does it come from Boulder County? I don’t think so. Does it come from Larimer County? I don’t think so.” 

While the Yampa itself does not have water diverted to the Front Range, it is seeing decreasing water due to a changing climate, and as a result more restrictions says Anne Castle, a water attorney who served as assistant secretary for water and science in the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2009 to 2014.

“People haven’t needed to know much about the sources of water, how much it costs to get that water to their tap and the implications of climate change impacts on water and how that’s going to play out in their lives.”

This ranch in Steamboat Springs is one of many at risk of water shortage as the result of a compact call.

But now people across the Colorado River Basin need to pay attention to their water use. If a call is made on the compact and more water needs to be sent to lower basin states to fulfill legal obligations, it could potentially impact water users on the Yampa says Castle. 

“There’s been some work done by scientists commissioned by the Colorado River District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District that’s looking at the risk of a compact call. And their recent work has also looked at the priority of water rates that would have to be called.”  

In order to do that, you might have to curtail all water rates junior to, say, 1950. Well, there’s a lot of water rights in the Yampa system that are junior to 1950. And so they would all be at risk.

The Yampa got a taste of what could be to come in September of 2018. Nearly two decades of drought and an especially hot, dry summer left the river at historically low levels. 

The river was put under administration for the first time ever — or, as it’s colloquially known, “on call.” Water commissioners like Hummer began shutting off junior water users’ ditches.

“When you talk about this being the last frontier, there’s just some people up here that like to fight. They like the challenge of pushing the envelope. Will the division engineer really put the river on call? Will the water commissioner really show up on a Sunday afternoon at 5:30 to see what I’m doing?” Well, the answer to those two questions may not have been yes in the past, but sure as heck is now.”

Changes in Yampa flows have required the Daughenbaugh family change how they use water on the Rocking Bar C Ranch they’ve owned for over 70 years.

Many water users in Yampa live on land their families have owned for generations. In fact, Marsha Daughenbaugh still lives in the house she was born in. Daughenbaugh’s father first purchased the Rocking Bar C Ranch in 1946. Daughenbaugh and her husband took over, and now their daughter and son-in-law run things. 

Daughenbaugh, who spent 25 years with the USDA and then 15 years with the Community Agriculture Alliance, understands the way ranchers think. She views the issue of water through many different lenses and she understands why ranchers are reluctant to see the river change.

“That independence of the West, perhaps, that we don’t like anybody telling us what to do, a lot of those days are gone. We can’t run cattle all across everything like was done in the early 1900s. I think some of the resistance with the water issues is that fear that we’re just giving up one more thing, that our independence is just becoming smaller and smaller as the systems dictate a different use or as we’re being encroached by more and more people.” 

And Yampa River water users are indeed going to have to give up more independence. The Division of Water Resources is asking them to make some pretty big changes. Erin Light, the Division 6 engineer, heads up the Division of Water Resources for the Yampa River. She’s Scott Hummer’s boss, and oversees a staff of 11 people.

“There were areas that…I don’t wanna say people were caught by surprise; it’s just that they live their lives every day thinking we would never go on a call. And they had been told time and time and time again, you have to install a measuring device, you have to install a measuring device. And the water commissioner kept getting a cold shoulder. Like, ‘We’re never going to be administered! Gimme a break. We’re not going to spend that money and go do this.’ And so I think they were very unhappy when the system did go on call and they were shut off and they were shut off because they had no measuring device.”

Water users in Yampa were given until November 30th to install a headgate. After that date, they either have to get one installed or stop using their water entirely. 

And if people continue to use water without a headgate? The state will fine them $500 dollars per day. 

Nobody knows for certain what demand management or a compact call would truly mean for Colorado, or the Yampa. But for water users and those tasked with managing water use, like Scott Hummer, that change can be deeply personal.

“I can remember as a younger water commissioner in the wintertime, I’d take a week’s vacation. Where did I go? I’d go to Lake Powell to see how full it was. You know, I go to Moab to see how much water was in the river and stuff like that, or go see some dam I’d heard about that I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I don’t do that anymore.”


Connecting the Drops is produced in partnership between Water Education Colorado and Rocky Mountain Community Radio stations. This series would not be possible without the generous support of CoBank, a national cooperative bank helping to provide financing solutions for rural water systems.

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