Second Yellow Jacket meeting yields results; residents cite better communication

MEEKER I Thanks to an improved flow of information, both landowners and representatives of the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District Board of Directors came away feeling better after a follow-up meeting May 5.
“The meeting was not as emotional as the first,” said Shawn Welder of Welder Outfitting Services. “Overall, it was a constructive meeting.”
Joe Livingston of Big Beaver Ranch agreed, saying, “YJWCD did a much better job of listening and answering questions.”
Landowners became concerned after learning about the water district’s plans for a water storage feasibility study and what it could potentially mean to upriver properties. So they called for a meeting with the YJWCD board, which was held April 17. One of the landowners’ complaints was a lack of communication between YJWCD and residents who could be impacted by a water storage project.
Trina Zagar-Brown, a Meeker attorney who represents the Yellow Jacket Water District, said the board was committed to keeping landowners informed of the district’s plans.
“In general, the board restated the importance of maintaining historical flows in the White River Valley and working to ensure that agriculture as well as other users’ needs can be addressed in times of drought or over-appropriation of the regional water flows,” Zagar-Brown said. “The YJ board stated they felt that the meeting was a good presentation of the general outline of the study and was pleased with the public turnout. The board remains clear in their direction that open communication with the public is essential in this process.”
The Yellow Jacket Water District receive a $220,800 grant, which includes a local match of about $55,000, to have the three-phase feasibility study done. The study, which is expected to begin in June, will take 18 months to complete.
“One of the biggest gaps between the Yellow Jacket members and the people that attended the meeting was the lack of understanding as to how any water storage projects were going to directly benefit the taxpayers within the district and how input could best be relayed from the people within the district to the Yellow Jacket board that represents them,” Welder said. “To me, it sounded like energy development in the area was the driving force behind the grant money being approved for this water storage feasibility study. The folks at the meeting expressed concerns about how future water projects may adversely affect existing uses, water quality, wildlife and the health of the White River.”
Livingston picked up on that point as well.
“I thought an interesting point was YJWCD can sell its water rights and in the past some discussions had taken place with Shell Oil,” Livingston said. “Considering water rights Shell already owns on the South Fork of the White River. If they acquired all of YJWCD rights, it could have a very large impact on the flow in the White River.”
Zagar-Brown said the board has no plans to sell or lease its water rights, though it would be within its rights to do so.
“Per se, there are no legal prohibitions on the sale or lease of YJ water rights to any entity, public or private,” Zagar-Brown said. “Any sale or lease would be presented to the board for a full board vote. If that proposition were ever to arise, the board would review the proposed transfer or lease in view of the best interest of the overall district.
“With that stated, it is important to note that there are no current or foreseen plans to sell or lease YJ water rights to any entity, public or private. There have been no such plans presented to this board. Energy companies in the past have made inquiries for the purchase or lease of YJ water rights. The board specifically voted ‘no’ to a request by an energy company to engage in detailed negotiations for the lease of the entire YJ conditional water rights portfolio just over two years ago.”
Water usage by oil and gas companies is certainly a factor in balancing the needs of water users within the district, Zagar-Brown acknowledged.
“The (Yellow Jacket) water rights have long been contemplated to assist in providing water for potential oil shale development,” she said. “By most accounts, the development of oil shale will require significant amounts of water and YJ has historically viewed that it would play a critical role in water supplies for the oil shale. The current realities are that the development of natural gas also requires significant water resources. Maybe, most important, is that the development of natural resources takes water away from its other uses such as agricultural. So YJ’s role going forward may be to manage water storage projects that help off set the heavy-water demands associated with natural resource extraction, whether it be oil shale or natural gas.”
Zagar-Brown said the feasibility study will help the nine-member board in making decisions about future water rights and usage.
“The board … believes that it has a duty to the taxpayers of the district to preserve, maintain and utilize its conditional water rights for the benefit of the district and the district’s water users,” Zagar-Brown said. “The purpose of the study is to analyze and better understand these water rights in a contemporary context, so that the board can properly plan for the implementation of these water rights going into the future.”
Zagar-Brown said there will be public presentations at the conclusion of each phase of the study, which addressed landowners’ concerns.
“The public comment given at (the May 5) meeting generally emphasized the need, desire and importance of public comment and presentation during the study,” Zagar-Brown said.