Oil shale water-rights battle brewing over Shell’s Yampa River claim

The Yampa River on Colorado's Western Slope. (Photo/notanyron, Flickr)

The Yampa River on Colorado's Western Slope. (Photo/notanyron, Flickr)

Towns and counties along the Yampa River in rural northwest Colorado are starting to gird for battle against mighty Shell Oil, which in December filed a claim on the Yampa for enough water to fill a proposed reservoir for future oil shale production.

According to the Steamboat Pilot and Today newspaper, the town of Yampa’s board of trustees last week voted unanimously to join any organized legal efforts to block the water grab by Shell.

The paper on Sunday reported that Shell, which filed for 375 cubic feet per second on Dec. 30, wants to build a 45,000-acre-foot reservoir in Moffat County for use in future oil shale development. The Denver Post first broke the story in early January.

Late last month Moffat County commissioners met with the board of commissioners for Routt County (home to Steamboat Springs) to discuss jointly opposing Shell’s water rights application and sharing potentially massive legal fees. Moffat County officials said they plan to follow their land-use board’s suggestion that the county file a formal protest.

According to the Pilot and Today, Moffat County Commissioner Tom Gray was skeptical about the move: “I don’t think there’s a leg to stand on to say this isn’t a valid use of the water.”

But Gray added that a recent meeting of the Yampa/White Basin Roundtable, a coalition of stakeholders along the river drainage, sparked a degree of alarm about the impacts to the river such a claim might have in the long term. “There is a huge concern up and down the river about this filing,” he said.

A report prepared for the Yampa/White Basin Roundtable last fall and first reported by the Colorado Independent indicated the Yampa and other rivers such as the Green and the Colorado in northwest Colorado could not support a full-scale oil shale boom.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

David O. Williams is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy,
environmental and political issues for the Colorado Independent since
2008, delivering impact journalism on a wide range of topics. A former
editor for the Vail Daily and Vail Trail, Williams’ work also has
appeared in numerous publications since 1988, including the New York
Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He appears periodically as a
guest on Rocky Mountain PBS and David Sirota’s show on 760 AM in
Denver. Williams is the founder, part owner and editor of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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