History of Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District

In the spring of 2010, many residents within the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District raised questions about the history, the future, the motives, and the intentions of the district. Misunderstandings concerning the mission of the board of directors, the district’s history and future dominated much of the discussion. The mission of the Yellow Jacket Conservancy District and its board of directors has remained the same since its inception: To build an effective and efficient water storage project while providing water for agricultural, recreational, wildlife, municipal, and industrial uses. The district seeks to fulfill these goals while respecting existing water rights and water users.
On April 11, 1956, Congress passed the Colorado River Storage Project Act in an effort to develop the upper Colorado River Basin. This act recognized Yellow Jacket as a potential beneficiary of the new legislation and in 1957, the Bureau of Reclamation released a study of the area declaring that the Yellow Jacket Unit could provide irrigation water for 41,140 acres of land, aid in fish and wildlife conservation, promote recreational activities, contribute to sediment control, supply water for agricultural and industrial needs and have the potential for energy development in the form of hydroelectric power.
Following this intensive study by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District was created on Sept. 29, 1959, by the authority of the District Court of Rio Blanco County and the state of Colorado. The newly created Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District contained nine separate divisions, each represented by a director required to own land within the respective district. Residents within the district can petition the District Court for appointment. Upon review of filed petitions, the district court appoints directors to serve a four-year term. The district’s current directors are Ed Coryell, David Smith, Doug Wellman, James Joy, Albert Krueger, Gary Dunham, Kelly Sheridan, Mr. Mike Brennan and Lee Watson (retired). The district’s secretary-counsel is Trina Zagar Brown, of the law firm Cooley Zagar-Brown.
Throughout the district’s history, it has conducted many investigations and studies for the development of its conditional storage decrees. The overall integrated project includes seven storage sites with accompanying feeder canals. The total district portfolio includes 16 conditional water rights. The archive of previous studies point out the strengths and challenges of the investigated sites. For example, the 1961 feasibility investigation determined that the Ripple Creek, Lost Park, and Thornburgh Reservoir on Milk Creek sites would best serve the interests of the community while adhering to the district’s mission to provide for a variety of water usages. In 1968, the enhancement of fish and wildlife, recreation and flood control were added as project purposes.
The momentum of the 1960s investigations further evolved with the industrial boom of the 1970s. The 1970s were a notably active time for the district, during which the area witnessed the rapidly growing interest in the production of oil shale. The 1973 Oil Embargo sent U.S. oil prices skyrocketing resulting in a focus on domestic production. Extracting oil from oil shale requires large quantities of water, and companies developing this resource in the Piceance Basin area looked to the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District to provide much of it. Throughout the 1970s, the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District convened with state and federal officials to discuss and plan for the water needs required to establish and maintain a possible oil shale industry. While many doubted and opposed the development of oil shale within the region, the district pursued its original mandate to provide water storage management to benefit all district water users. The district also coordinated a water-usage strategy with the town of Meeker in 1972. In cooperation with the Rio Blanco County Board of County Commissioners, a study of a domestic water system for the valley was also conducted. In 1973, the board of directors considered six alternative variants to the fundamental plan of the Yellow Jacket Project, which included various hypothetical situations and their effects on agricultural, municipal, recreational, domestic and industrial uses of water.
In December of 1982, International Engineering Company completed a comprehensive Yellow Jacket Project Feasibility Report to assess possible engineering solutions for the storage, diversion and pumping structures necessary for the Yellow Jacket Project. This in-depth analysis concluded that the Avery Reservoir, Sawmill Mountain Reservoir, and Warner Point Reservoir were most deserving of further inquiry and study. These engineering plans were in concert with the initial mission of the Yellow Jacket Conservancy District, as it accounted for a diverse collection of agricultural, industrial, municipal, domestic, and recreational water supplies among others. The oil shale bust of the early 1980s resulted in an abrupt end to funding opportunities and momentum for the development of the district’s storage projects. The duration of the 1980s represented a time to reassess the future of industrial development and its impact on water usage within the district.

During the 1990s, the Yellow Jacket Board continued its meetings and communications with state and local officials on the prospect of the implementation of the original Yellow Jacket Project. The attorney for the district at the time, Frank Cooley, acknowledged that the natural resource development in Piceance Creek might not resurrect itself during that decade but that the district should remain vigilant in its efforts to pursue the district’s original mandate of water storage for agricultural, industrial, municipal, recreational and wildlife uses. These diligence efforts in the 1990s preserved the opportunity and continued to highlight the need for proactive water storage planning within the district.
During the last five years, the district refocused its efforts on assessing its water rights portfolio for the benefit of the district’s water users. The district reviewed historical district information, engineering reports, and in-depth analyses completed in years past, but determined that a contemporary assessment was required to adequately gauge the district’s direction. The Colorado Water Conservation Board reports that by the year 2030, Colorado’s population is expected to grow to about 7.1 million people. The current population is about 4.5 million people. It is reported that in order to provide an adequate water supply and maintain existing uses, an additional 630,000-acre feet of water will need to be developed throughout the state. One acre-foot of water is equal to approximately 326,000 gallons; the number of gallons in one acre-foot of water typically supports two families of four for one year. With the majority of the state’s population located on the eastern slope, the western regions of Colorado must remain cognizant of the desire to utilize western water to meet other regional and national water needs.
In an effort to proactively address water storage development within the region, the district sought funding from the Yampa-White-Green Basin through the Yampa-White-Green Roundtable. The Yampa-White-Green Basin includes approximately 10,500 square miles in northwest Colorado and south-central Wyoming. The Colorado Water Conservation Board states that adequate water supply is essential to maintaining the character and appearance of the Yampa-White-Green Basin. In response to these challenges the Colorado Water for the 21st Century Act was enacted in 2005, creating the Basin Roundtables (such as the Yampa-White-Green Roundtable) and the Interbasin Compact Committee to coordinate projects and address relevant issues between Colorado basins. Currently, nine separate roundtables exist throughout the state. Rather than the government offices of Denver dictating Colorado water policy, the basin roundtables offer an arena for local solutions to local problems while facilitating discussion among appropriate water-interested parties. The Colorado General Assembly also contributed to water preservation in the state with the passage of Senate Bill 06-179 in 2006. This bill established the Water Supply Reserve Account, which allocates funding for various grants and loans necessary for the completion of qualifying water projects approved by the basin roundtables. On Sept. 2, 2009, the area Yampa-White-Green Roundtable voted unanimously to approve funding for the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District Water Storage Feasibility Study in the amount of $220,080. The total study was approved for $275,000, of which $55,000 will be obtained through local matching funds. After approval by the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable the request was forwarded to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) for further evaluation and final approval for funding. On Jan. 26, 2010, the CWCB voted to approve the Yellow Jacket Water Storage Feasibility Study. The board proceeded with the process to select a water engineering consultant firm to conduct the three-phase study. In March of 2010, the district selected the Applegate Group, Inc., and HDR Inc. to conduct the study. Public comment throughout the phases of the study will be encouraged and the final study report will also be presented to the public.

This study will advise the district of the most beneficial options regarding the development and implementation of a storage project within the district. The study will yield a contemporary understanding of the district’s integrated water rights portfolio, the impact of potential projects on affected landowners and a clearer assessment of the district’s current water needs. The final phase of the study will recommend the development of a water storage project within the district. The results of the study will determine if the proposed storage site utilizes one of the district’s existing storage sites or a newly identified site. This intensive, professional assessment will take up to 18 months to complete. Upon conclusion of the study, the district will be able to offer a contemporary and comprehensive plan fulfilling its original mission: To build an effective and efficient water storage project providing water for agricultural, recreational, municipal, wildlife and industrial uses within the district.
— Trina Zagar-Brown, attorney for Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District