Rafters are dwarfed by Tiger Wall on the Yampa River, which is Colorado’s only river that flows with unclaimed water. (Hyoung Chang, Denver Post file photo )

A water war is brewing on the Yampa River.

A bid by the Shell Exploration and Production Co. for a 15 billion- gallon water right has sparked opposition letters from 25 federal, state and local agencies, along with businesses and environmental groups.

The battle runs from Parker, which is seeking more water amid Front Range suburbs, to Dinosaur National Monument, where National Park Service officials worry that Shell’s plan to divert water for oil-shale development may hurt the park.

Other objections filed with the Steamboat Springs water court came from a coal company, a power company, an agricultural ditch company and Cross Mountain Ranch, a hunting resort.

The Shell application and the opposition letters will be reviewed by the water court, a process that water lawyers say could take a year.

The Shell bid is provoking such a strong reaction because the Yampa is Colorado’s last river with unclaimed water.

“There is a big target on the Yampa. Everyone is looking to tap into it,” said Glenn Porzak, a water lawyer for the city of Steamboat Springs.

Water-rights applications usually generate no more than seven protest letters, Porzak said. The biggest case he was ever involved in had about 19.

“This Yampa case is big,” he said.

Shell is seeking a conditional water right to take up to 375 cubic feet per second, about 8 percent of the Yampa’s average April-to-June flow.

“This would be a junior water right that would only be taken when the water was available,” said Tracy Boyd, a Shell spokesman.

Shell would pump the water into a new reservoir covering 1,000 acres and holding 45,000 acre-feet of water, or about 15 billion gallons.

The water — taken from a point west of Craig — would be part of the company’s supply for oil-shale development, which is still in an experimental stage.

Shell estimates that commercial development may be at least 10 years away.

“If we tie up all the available water on the West Slope, what will happen to us on the east slope?” asked Jim Nik kel, assistant manager of the Parker Water and Sewer District.

Parker has been looking at sources to replace its dwindling groundwater supplies as far away as the Green River in Wyoming.

“Colorado’s waters are a state resource for all of us,” Nikkel said.

Looking for more details

Routt County, which is above the Shell diversion, also filed an opposition letter.

Many of the groups filing opposition letters are just seeking more information — such as the one from the Colorado State Engineer.

“We want to make sure that the water right isn’t speculative, that it will be put to a beneficial use and that Shell can and will develop the required infrastructure,” Assistant State Engineer Kevin Rein said. “There isn’t enough information in the application to do that.”

Boyd said: “Shell will work with communities, agencies and holders of water rights to address their concerns.”

Moffat County filed a letter because the proposed reservoir would bury a county road.

“We just want to be part of the process to protect our citizens,” said Moffat County Commissioner Tom Gray, who criticized the many letters from groups outside the river basin with no direct standing. “We hope the water court weeds out opposers who don’t have standing and who would not be harmed.”

Among the other filers and the issues they raise are:

• The federal Bureau of Land Management, which says Shell has not yet applied for rights of way through public land needed for its plan.

• The state Division of Wildlife, which is seeking more information on the potential impact of the water right on recovery plans for endangered fish species in the Yampa and Colorado rivers.

• The Colorado River Conservation District, which wants more detail on the impact of the proposed right on the state’s obligation to interstate water compacts.

The environmental groups filing include the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited and the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

“Colorado’s future is the issue here,” said Roger Singer, the Sierra Club’s western regional representative. “Do we commit this dwindling resource to energy development?”

There is no direct charge for obtaining unappropriated water. But an applicant must prove to a water court that the water will be put to beneficial use and that the proposed plan is viable.

Challenges can add 18 months to the process.

Mark Jaffe: 303-954-1912 or [email protected]