WATER FIGHT: Landowners upset over Yellow Jacket plan

MEEKER I Every six years, the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District is required by law to file for “a finding of due diligence,” in order to preserve its conditional water rights.
Which is why the water district published a public notice of these rights in the Herald Times back in March. However, this time around, it’s different.
This time, besides doing its usual due diligence, the water district is moving ahead with plans to have a feasibility study to assess the district’s water rights portfolio.
And that has some upriver landowners up in arms.
“A lot of people don’t know what they are doing,” said Horst Rick, who owns property upriver. “Nobody knew about this. We just want to know what they want to do, so we know what’s going on. That’s what we’re after.”
Trina Zagar-Brown, a Meeker attorney representing the Yellow Jacket Water District, sent a letter to landowners last Friday, outlining the group’s due diligence and the plans for a water feasibility study.
“Yellow Jacket is fully aware that the filing of the notice on these rights in the local paper may cause some concern to landowners,” Zagar-Brown wrote. “The Yellow Jacket Board of Directors believes that these historical conditional storage rights have significant value to district and regional water users. The board continues to believe that it is critical that it fully pursue a finding of due diligence on these water rights. However, it is important to point out that these are conditional storage rights and there are currently no plans to construct actual storage projects at any of these sites.”
In the letter to landowners, Zagar-Brown went on to write: “Obviously an actual storage project could not commence on any of these sites without a lengthy notice process to the relevant landowners and the relevant governmental agencies. These conditional rights were located decades ago and the eventual implementation of these rights may not necessarily occur in their currently decreed location.”
The mission of the water district, which was formed in 1956, “Is to maintain and manage its water rights for the benefit of agricultural, municipal, industrial, wildlife and recreational users.” The district’s boundaries “encompass the eastern portion of Rio Blanco County, including the majority of the Piceance Creek Basin, a small but an important natural resource portion of Moffat County and a very small portion of Garfield County near the Piceance Creek Basin,” Zagar-Brown stated in her letter.
She defined the district’s conditional water rights as “similar to a theoretical water right … meaning it has not been utilized for its beneficial use.” She added the district’s “historical water rights have been maintained since the late ’50s.”
In January, the Yellow Jacket Water District received a $220,800 grant from the Colorado Water Conservancy Board, through the Yampa-White River Basin Roundtable funds, to finance the feasibility study. The Yellow Jacket Board of Directors then selected as consultants The Applegate Group and HDR Inc. to conduct the three-phase study, which will take 18 months to complete. The study will start in June.
“They got a grant to study these sites, so you know something serious is going on,” landowner Rick said. “We have all kinds of people up in arms. I think the public needs to know what their plans are. I’ve talked to a whole bunch of people, and most of them didn’t know a thing about this and they were shocked when I told them about it. We want a public hearing. When you see spending $220,000 just to study this thing, you wonder where it’s going. They want to build a dam … can you imagine how much of the valley that will flood?”
Zagar-Brown acknowledged “one of our largest conditional water rights is right there, basically, the whole Elk Creek development, but the chances of that happening are slim. … I would never rule anything out, but you can see the pragmatic dilemmas of flooding the Elk Creek development.”
Zagar-Brown, in her letter to landowners, said the feasibility study “is the largest undertaking in recent Yellow Jacket history, but it is merely a feasibility study.” She added the study “is important to all water users in northwest Colorado. Reasonable, responsible water storage is critical to the economic diverse base within our region.”
There is an opportunity for landowners or other interested parties to oppose the Yellow Jacket Water District’s project, but the filing deadline is the end of April.
“Yellow Jacket, historically, has never had significant battles regarding its due diligence proceedings,” Zagar-Brown said, adding. “It works very hard to use taxpayer money for the best interest of the district and what it maintains to be very valuable water rights.”
Joe Livingston, who owns Big Beaver Ranch upriver, said because landowners were unaware of the water district’s plan until only recently, they have no choice but to file a letter of opposition.
“Citizens and affected landowners have not received specific, detailed information as to scope, locations, benefits and impact of the 14 projects being proposed by Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District,” Livingston said. “The reality is that we have limited resources and limited dollars. Citizens have to demand that governmental agencies provide clear specific information on proposals before we allow them to tie up our resources and our dollars.
“As much fun as it may have been, the error of uncontrolled big governmental projects without clear concise plans and explanations to the public is over,” Livingston continued. “YJWCD’s legal filings state that opposition must be filed in the District 6 Water Court before the last day of April 2010. Unfortunately, at this point, the only thing we as citizens can do is to file a letter of opposition.”
In the meantime, landowners requested a public meeting be held to discuss the water district’s plans.
Upriver resident Rick, in a letter to Yellow Jacket attorney Zagar-Brown dated April 9, wrote, “Ever since I saw our name in the legal notice … filing several weeks ago, I have been trying to get information about the Yellow Jacket project, who is involved and what the details are of their plans. In discussions with some of our neighbors, I also learned that they knew nothing about this.
“I found out that Jim Joy was a director and asked that he get with his board and set up a public presentation of what this is all about. I have had no response to that request as of today. I am therefore requesting from you, their attorney, the following:
n Please provide me with the names of all the directors, and which sub-district they represent.
n Please provide me with a map of the district, showing the location of the nine sub-districts.
n Please set up a public presentation/discussion with the district to explain the project before the April 30 deadline for the filing of the Statement of Opposition.
n Please try to get this deadline extended to allow the public the chance to contemplate the project as presented in the public presentation and formulate their response to it, if any.”
In the grant application for funding of the feasibility study, Yellow Jacket attorney Zagar-Brown wrote, “The area served by the Yellow Jacket District is currently home to some of the most significant natural gas exploration, production and processing in the United States. … In addition to natural gas development, the District remains cognizant of the potential impact of the development of oil shale on industrial water rights and storage within the District. Regional studies indicate that the industrial water requirements for both oil shale and natural gas development will be significant and deplete many of the existing resources.”
Zagar-Brown said the Yellow Jacket District’s Board of Directors is studying the issue carefully.
“(The board) has had several work sessions … to discuss and create a strategy to implement the balance between municipal, agricultural and industrial water in the future,” she said.
The feasibility study is part of that ongoing process, she said.
“We think that data is critical. (The goal is to) assess these water rights to see what is the best way to go forward,” Zagar-Brown said. “Water has so much value to us here in the arid West. Everything in Piceance Creek takes a whole lot of water. … Outside of Lake Avery, the White River Basin does not have a significant storage of any kind. There has been a lot of interest in storage projects, but they are expensive, complicated projects, so none have been initiated. For a whole host of reasons, no project has manifested itself into a storage reservoir. … It takes a lot of effort, a lot of money and a lot of momentum to get anything done. Usually, they say, it takes eight to 10 years to implement a water storage project.
“We want to have an open process going forward,” Zagar-Brown said of the water district’s plans. “This is a lengthy, complicated process. Nobody is getting a shovel anytime soon to start building a pond.”