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It's hard to find a river in the West that hasn't been dammed, diverted or otherwise appropriated for its water. Of course, by harnessing the melted snow flowing down from the Rocky Mountains, desert cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix have been able to bloom. In the latest in our series on water in the West, Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC takes us to a rare river that's been allowed to run relatively wild. And that river, the Yampa in Colorado, is at the center of a fight.

KIRK SIEGLER: The Yampa River is a wild anomaly in Colorado. This time of year, the water is high from all the snow melt, and the river swells through the remote dramatic cannons of the Dinosaur National Monument between Colorado and Utah.

Unidentified Man: Hup, hup! Hup…

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)

SIEGLER: A crew of well-tanned, 20-something guides is busy unstrapping three big blue rafts and dragging them off a van toward the river.

(Soundbite of dragging sounds)

SIEGLER: The boats are owned by Adrift Adventures out of nearby Vernal, Utah. Scoring a permit to run this canyon is a coveted thing, says Pat Tierney, who founded the company 25 years ago.

Mr. PAT TIERNEY (Founder, Adrift Adventures): There's very few wild rivers that you can find to go rafting on. And the canyon is considered one of the most beautiful. It's the Grand Canyon and few other places like the Yampa are right up there in the terms of just outstanding beauty.

SIEGLER: And wildlife. The river is home to four endangered fish. They thrive here because of the Yampa's natural flows. But some powerful interests have their eyes on this free flowing water, and in one case, the oil that lies near it.

Mr. TRACY BOYD (Spokesman, Shell Oil): Because the resource is so vast here. It's three times what the Saudi Arabians currently have in proved reserves, and it represents a significant opportunity for energy security for the U.S.

SIEGLER: That's Tracy Boyd. He's a spokesman for Shell Oil. The company has filed for the rights to divert a substantial amount of water from the Yampa just a few miles upstream from the Dinosaur Monument. It would be stored in a massive reservoir for future oil shale mining. It's a controversial and still unproven technology. Shell says it wants to inject the water into the ground to unlock oil from shale.

Mr. BOYD: And this is a long-term commitment to prudently and, you know, slowly and properly address all the technical questions and environmental and social questions about oil shale development so that it can be done the right way, at the right time.

SIEGLER: But right now, lots of people have questions about how much water this will take and whether there'll be any left for everyone else. Among the doubters is Carl Brouwer. He's a project manager with Northern Water, the agency that secures water supplies for the booming Colorado Front Range north of Denver.

Mr. CARL BROUWER (Project Manager, Northern Water): The reason entirely we think we need the water over here is just purely due to population growth.

SIEGLER: Northern has also proposed to take water from the Yampa near Shell's site, but they want to pipe it 225 miles up and over the Continental Divide to the eastern side of the Rockies where most Coloradans live, despite the lack of water.

Mr. BROUWER: Unless, I think, they put armed guards at I-25 and I-70, people are going to find this a desirable place.

SIEGLER: Brouwer believes the new water supply might also stop the dry up of farms on the state's productive eastern plains where landowners have been selling their lucrative water rights to eager developers.

So you've got agriculture, extractive energy companies, and people who depend on this water all battling for a piece of the Yampa.

Back at the Dinosaur Monument, Pat Tierney is nearly finished getting his gear together for a five-night float trip. He's leading a group of Sierra Club members through the canyon. This is where the Sierra Club launched its first nationwide environmentalist campaign in the 1950s. They successfully stopped a huge reservoir that would have dammed up the canyons in the monument. Today, Tierney is mobilizing for a similar fight.

Mr. TIERNEY: We want to protect this rare jewel and the flows in it. Leave this one. You know, let our grandchildren see what a wild river is like.

SIEGLER: All the proposals for more water out of the Yampa will have to work their way through Colorado's complicated water court system. And meanwhile, everything's on hold while the state finishes up a long-awaited study on water supplies and growing demand in Colorado. That may conclude there's not enough water in the Yampa to share with anyone.

For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler.

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