The debate over the best possible use for Colorado’s limited Western Slope water supplies is likely to intensify in light of Tuesday’s Denver Post report that Shell Oil has filed to obtain up to 8 percent of the peak spring runoff in the Yampa River in the northwestern part of the state.
According to the Post, the move by Shell to slurp up some of the state’s last unappropriated water rights for future oil-shale production flies directly in the face of efforts by Front Range communities to pipe water from the Yampa to the eastern slope for current and future residential development.
That struggle over the significant water needs of a potentially massive oil supply — albeit one that is years away from commercial production because of unproven technology — and the state’s future water supply demands for anticipated residential and commercial growth is one of the reasons conservation groups are weighing a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), under whose federal lands much of the shale reserves are concentrated.
And it’s a cause for great concern for both public and private groups that monitor the health of the state’s major Western Slope river drainages such as the Yampa, the White and the Colorado. Recent studies indicate there is not enough water in those drainages to accommodate both normal growth and the rebirth of the oil-shale industry that tanked in the early 80s, leaving some Western Slope communities virtual overnight ghost towns.
According to one of those reports, energy companies control approximately 26 percent of the flow and 56 percent of the water storage volume in the Upper Colorado Basin, the Post reported.