White River ruling
The ruling from a water judge in Steamboat Springs Friday is not likely to be a critical impediment to oil shale production, should a commercially feasible method of extracting oil from shale be found, but it is a significant victory for a scenic and priceless river basin in northwestern Colorado.
As reported by The Daily Sentinel’s Dennis Webb, the water judge on Friday cancelled conditional water rights for approximately 140,000 acre feet of water in the White River basin east of Meeker. The water that was to be stored in three reservoirs in the basin was primarily intended for oil shale and coal development, with agriculture and municipal uses also included.
The judge ruled that the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy District’s conditional rights for the water were effectively abandoned in 2009 because the district did not have a quorum on its board of directors when it made its due-diligence filing for the rights.
A number of property owners in the basin have complained about the potential water projects and decisions of the Yellow Jacket Water Conservancy district related to them. Landowners, along with a conservation group called Western Resource Advocates, sued to have the water rights abandoned.
Although the amount of water rights involved is significant, there are other sources of water available for oil shale. One 2009 study found energy companies and water districts have applied for storage rights to 1.8 million acre feet of water in the Colorado and White River basins, to meet expected oil shale needs.
Also, the latest technology reportedly uses less water than earlier processes. So projections for the water needs of a commercial oil shale industry made a few years ago may have to be recalculated.
However, it’s nearly impossible to calculate the value of the White River basin. Its great beauty, wonderful fisheries and abundant wildlife have made it a favorite of tourists for more than a century, while its streams have long sustained agriculture.
While an appeal of the decision may come, or new water rights with more junior adjudication dates may be filed, Friday’s decision will make it more difficult to use the water in the White River basin without adequate protection.