by Allen Best
In 2018, Erin Light did something that had never before been done on the Yampa River downstream from Steamboat Springs. She placed a call.
As district water engineer, Light was responsible for administering Colorado’s complex matrix of water rights. Rights are ranked by date and volume, from earliest decreed and hence most senior to most recent and hence junior. A senior water-rights holder on the Yampa River at Lily Park, near the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, had called to say he was not getting the water decreed to that property for irrigation of the hay meadows.
The call she placed that summer lasted 21 days, causing the most junior of users upstream to cease diversions until that senior right was met. Then came another hot and dry summer in 2020, and she placed another call, this one lasting 9 days. It was a paradigm shift for the Yampa, a river that through the 20th century always had had enough water for anybody who wanted to dip a straw into it.
If foreign to the Yampa River, such calls have long been commonplace on Colorado rivers. The premise is water scarcity, the idea that there just isn’t enough water for all who want it, at least all the time.
Colorado’s hierarchy of seniors and juniors, older and younger, is commonly traced to the development of irrigation agriculture in the Poudre Valley between Fort Collins and Greeley. The Greeley irrigators were first, but then came new irrigators upstream near Fort Collins. In a drought year, their new diversions had an effect on what was available downstream. Within a decade, soon after Colorado became a state, the first calls were placed on that river.
It took little time for scarcity to be understood on all of Colorado’s rivers east of the Continental Divide. Scarcity was slower to be understood on the Western Slope, where there was more water and, even in the days of feverish gold- and silver-mining, fewer people. Yet over the decades, the Colorado and other rivers came to be fully appropriated.
The Yampa, though, stood alone among major rivers in Colorado in its relative plentitude. It routinely delivered water to all who wanted it. Even its reservoirs, modest in size, came relatively late in the 20th century, to help moderate flows.
The Yampa’s relative isolation played a role in this. It’s two mountain ranges distant from the Front Range, two significant fences to hop for Front Range cities and Great Plains farmers.
Climate also played a role. You can’t grow corn in the Yampa Valley with any reliability. You can grow hay, but the geography makes even that problematic.
Now that climate is shifting. Not enough to grow corn but enough to cause the Yampa to be marginally less robust and, as the 21st century has shown in 2018 and 2020, but also in other years before that, unable to deliver.
This has led to Light recommending that the Yampa be designated as “over-appropriated.” It’s a legal phrase that suggests something more odious than is actually the case. It sounds like the theater has been oversold and some people will be escorted from their seats to stand outside.
Over-appropriated doesn’t mean that. It does have implications for those wanting to drill large-capacity wells along the river. They must show the ability to deliver augmentation water, which is commonly purchased from an upstream reservoir. Most of Colorado’s rivers long ago were designated as over-appropriated.
In my reporting for a story commissioned by Aspen Journalism, which can be seen here and has more of the detail of interest to a local audience, I talked several times with Light. She chose her words carefully. She didn’t talk about climate change, only the direct evidence, the water years of 2018 and 2020. But there were other bad years, too, including 2012 and also 2002.
Light wasn’t the district engineer in 2002, and only recently did the downstream irrigator near Dinosaur explain why he hadn’t demanded his water that summer and fall. He just didn’t have the heart to cause so much pain upstream in that year of scorching temperatures, forest fires, and meager winter snows eviscerated by spring winds.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence from Light were these statistics, drawn from the U.S. Geological Survey gaging station at Maybell, located along the Yampa River (and Highway 40), between Craig and Dinosaur National Monument. A century ago, the gauging station recorded an average annual 1.5 million acre-feet. That has declined to 1.1 million in the 21st century. And, of course, some years are worse, including one year in the last decade of 500,000 acre-feet.
At a recent meeting of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, a representative of Boulder County mentioned drought caused by climate change in support of regulations to control methane emissions. One of the AQCC commissioners, Randy Ahrens, of Broomfield, wanted to know why, if the ski areas could talk about what wonderful record-breaking snows we had, we could still be in drought.
In that question I think I heard some skepticism, perhaps a wondering whether enviros were just a little too chicken-littlish. It was a legitimate question, though.
I saw the answer during my three trips to the Yampa Valley in 2020. In early March I visited Steamboat and then Craig, seeing evidence of a big snow year, reminiscent of the winter and spring I had spent there in 1979. I got skilled that winter at chaining up my Ford Pinto in the dark during a snowstorm while crossing Rabbit Ears Pass.
But those heavy snows I saw in March 2020 soon disappeared in a warm, dry spring.
Kelly Romero-Heaney, the water resources manager for Steamboat Springs, laid it out for me. The snow-water equivalent—a measure of the snowpack—showed 116% of median on March 1. It was down to 69% by June 1.
Then came summer, hot and dry, a record in both categories during August against 130 years of measurements.
That heat and lack of precipitation, Romero-Heaney told me, drove a measure called the SPEI, or Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index. “The combination
of heat and lack of precipitation drove an SPEI figure that far exceeded drought years, such as 2002, 2012, and 2018,” she said.
Last August, when I returned again to explore the Little Snake River, it felt like an oven. Stopping for a sandwich in Steamboat on the return to the Front Range, it felt Denver hot. That afternoon I continued eastward across Cameron Pass then drove past Long Draw Reservoir and toward the headwaters of the Colorado River. A week later, it was afire.
That Cameron Peak Fire was still in advancing in early October when we returned to Craig a third time. It was a smoky time there—and everywhere.
On that October trip I drove up the Elk River northwest of Steamboat Springs to see Jay Fetcher. His ranch a few miles from Steamboat Lake had been his parents’ ranch when they arrived from Philadelphia in 1949 and he was a toddler. His parents had kept a record through their years of when the last snow disappeared from the meadow. His father died just a few years ago, a legend in Steamboat and beyond, partly because he was a co-founder of the ski area, but also because of his work in water.
Jay has continued the work of his parents, charting the withering of the winter snowpack. And the chart he gave me showed a clear progression toward earlier springs, particularly during the 21st century. There’ still great variability, but now more so. The “snow off meadow” date arrives an average one day earlier every five years. That means longer summers.
The story here is that last year was emblematic of what has been happening in the Yampa River. There’s no longer enough water for everybody who wants it all the time. It’s not because of additional new diversions, although there are some. But that does not tell the story. The longer, hotter summers may cause ranchers to divert more water to irrigate. That could be part of the story.
The largest story is of the warming weather, the shifting climate.
Light has submitted her proposal for over-appropriation to her boss, Kevin Rein, the state water engineer. In an interview, he had also chosen his words about climate change carefully. Approving this, he said, would not be a prediction of a climate to come, only a recognition that the hydrological balance has shifted.
Fair enough. But there’s the weight of evidence, almost crushing, that climate change has started playing a heavy hand in the Colorado River. There are the studies by Udall, et al, that point to the “hot drought” as the story, with roughly half the recorded declines due to temperature and not precipitation. There are, of course, the enduring images of the bathtub ring at Lake Mead. And there are the models that predict much more warmth is yet to come.
Climate change is not just the future. It’s here, it’s now. And from all available evidence, the climate scientists were too conservative in their predictions.