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Water Leasing Program Gives Colorado Rivers a Boost

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A program that took water loaned from farmers, ranchers and municipalities and put it in low-flowing streams was successful this summer. The so-called "Request for Water" initiative added water to more than 190 river and stream miles this year.

The so-called “Request for Water” initiative called on water rights holders to voluntarily give up unused water for the health of streams.

“We needed senior water rights that would still yield some water even in a really dry year, and we didn’t know how many people would be willing to do it because we’d never really done anything like this before,” says Colorado Water Trust staff attorney Zach Smith.

The Colorado Water Trust jump-started the water leasing program from a 10-year-old, never-used law. Extreme drought conditions this year forced down stream flows and warmed up water, threatening fish. So, the group came up with a solution.

The Request for Water program stemmed from a law crafted following the 2002 drought. It was meant to deal with emergency water situations, and it wasn’t needed until this year.

The first water leasing happened on the Yampa River, which flows through Steamboat Springs.

“We had a lot of community buy-in where they were really nervous about the flow levels in the community’s river,” says Smith.

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District offered to lease 4-thousand acre feet of water from a nearby reservoir. Kevin McBride is the District’s General Manager:

“The district had water available from a previous water contractee who had not renewed their contract; the board decided that for one year, they could make a lease to the Colorado water trust.”

The Water Trust paid for the water ranchers, districts and other entities that stepped up to offer. Overall, the program added water to more than 190 stream and river miles this summer.

In a drought year, Zach Smith with the water trust says the program is another tool to maintain a healthy environment.

“This law has been on the books for about ten years, but it took a pretty bad year and folks like my boss thinking about how we can use the drought as an opportunity to show there are laws on the books that can help the environment during a drought year.”

Smith says this program will likely be used in another dry season. The Trust is already monitoring snowpack levels this year.

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