By Jerd Smith
Steamboat Springs, Colorado: Hundreds of ranchers in the scenic Yampa Valley have ignored a state request to begin measuring the water they use, putting them on a collision course with regulators that will land many of them in court this summer if they don’t relent.
Division Engineer Erin Light, the top water chief in the region, said roughly 70 percent of irrigators in this remote part of northwestern Colorado have not installed measuring devices, meaning that millions of gallons of water are being consumed without oversight, something that is routine on other river systems.
“I sent out a notice in March saying, ‘I’m going to issue an order if you don’t install them now,’” she said. “It was a friendly gesture.”
No one responded.
“We have not been impressed with the response,” Light said.
On Sept. 30, she issued a formal order to 550 ranchers, which, if ignored, could result in fines of up to $500 a day and court action.
The deadline to respond this time was Nov. 30. Few did so, Light said.
Under the terms of the order, ranchers who don’t install measuring flumes or other devices to track diversion rates from the river into their irrigation systems will be cut off if they try to irrigate in the spring. They will also likely face prosecution, Light said.
“We’ll be working with the attorney general’s office to begin court proceedings,” she said.
The issue reflects an end to a gentleman’s agreement that dates back to the late 1800s, a consensus that said these tough, resourceful ranchers could manage their own water, that the state did not need to issue a direct order, and that the hay meadows, and cattle and sheep operations, could continue diverting their irrigation water as they always had.
And that’s largely because of the Yampa River’s amazing flows. Unlike almost any other place in Colorado and the West, water here was once so abundant that there was almost always plenty to go around. Measurements weren’t needed, and the state rarely had to step in to resolve disputes among water users, allowing Mother Nature free rein.
But chronic drought, climate change, and population demands have begun eroding the Yampa’s once bountiful supplies. For the first time ever, in the desperately dry summer of 2018, Light was forced to step in, cutting off some irrigators because more senior water rights holders weren’t getting their legal share of water. That sent a shock across the valley but triggered little action.
These days the Yampa River has the distinction of being the only one of Colorado’s eight major river basins that remains largely unmeasured and unregulated.
But Light said the issue has become too critical, and water too scarce, to allow that to continue.
Mike Camblin, whose family has been ranching here for more than 100 years, said he will comply with the order. But he and many of his colleagues feel the state has been too heavy handed in its approach.
“What I don’t like about the order is that it’s forcing people to install those or they are going to get fined $500 a day to run water even if it’s a free river,” he said. The term free river means that there is enough water in the stream to satisfy all water rights, and under normal circumstances people can divert as much of the excess as they want.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Dave Seely, a long-time rancher who has 11 different irrigation ditches that span Moffat and Routt counties.
Many of his ditches already have measuring devices, but the order means he will have to install at least five new ones at a total cost of more than $10,000, he estimates.
Light is aware of the anger in the ranching community and said she understands the financial burden the order will place on many irrigators.
“I’ve been trying to encourage my water users to understand that there is a value to them in measuring how much water they divert. Water is often a rancher’s most valuable asset. But many don’t want to hear that,” she said.
Seely plans to comply with the order so that he can divert in the spring. But there is a lingering resentment and sense of loss for an era that is ending.
“Historically there was never a call on the river, but now there is,” Seely said. “Now we’re under the jurisdiction of the state engineer forever.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that it was illegal to divert water at this time. It will be illegal in the Spring if measuring devices have not been installed.
This story originally appeared on Fresh Water News, an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Its editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.