The race to secure water for oil shale has moved to the Yampa River, one of the last few streams in the West with liquid to spare.
Shell Oil Co. has staked a new claim on the scenic waterway, seeking millions of gallons of H20 to support future plans for oil shale, said spokesman Tracy Boyd.
"This would be one of the more substantial water rights we're accumulating," Boyd said. The company has a wide array of water rights in the Colorado Basin, which includes the Yampa and White rivers.
The Yampa has come under close scrutiny in recent years not only because it lies close to West Slope oil shale deposits but also because it's viewed as an important source of new water for Colorado's Front Range.
Shell's claim to the river is for 375 cubic feet per second, or about 750 acre-feet per day. One acre foot is enough to serve two urban homes for one year.
The company has said it would divert the water only during peak runoff periods in the spring and that any move to take water out of the river and store it is at least a decade away.
"We would not initiate any activity until we made a decision on whether to move forward with commercial development," Boyd said.
The dramatic fall in oil prices this fall has likely slowed that development, but Shell has been accumulating water rights for decades in hopes that eventually the technologies to extract the shale will become viable.
"Regardless of where oil prices are," Boyd said, "we think the opportunity is great and the benefit is great. We plan to continue our slow and methodical approach and stay the course."
Though people are scarce in the Yampa Valley, water isn't. The Yampa generates about as much water as the South Platte River, which supplies millions of people who live in metro Denver and the northern Front Range.
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State officials are in the midst of a study to quantify how much water is left in the Colorado River and its tributaries, the Yampa and White rivers.
Tucked into the wild, northwestern corner of the state, the Yampa has long been isolated from the growth and development pressures that dog other parts of the state.
Two years ago, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District suggested building a $4 billion pipeline to deliver water from a point near Maybell hundreds of miles east to the Front Range.
But Northern didn't stake a claim to the river, saying it would wait to see if others in the state were interested in pursuing the project.
Northern spokesman Brian Werner said Shell's stake in the river would not preclude Front Range entities from tapping its resources as well.
"It makes sense because that's where the water is in the state," he said.
Until recent years, the ranchers and coal miners who owned water rights in the Yampa could take as much water as they liked.
Though the state has been tightening its oversight of the river, it is still a wild place.
Tom Sharp, longtime water attorney who represents the Upper Yampa River Water Conservation District, wants to make sure the river's supplies are protected for the people of the valley.
"One single 45,000 acre-foot reservoir we can probably work with," Sharp said. "But if there was also a Front Range diversion, it magnifies the pressure, and it will make it riskier for us."