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RIVER TOWNS: Steamboat Springs | Yampa's story offers lessons for Colorado river towns

On a warm summer day in August, mountain bikers are all over the trails up on Mt. Werner, home of the Steamboat Ski Resort. Families are strolling through the Yampa River Botanic Park, south of the heart of downtown. Cyclists are riding along the Yampa Core, a 7.5-mile bike trail that meanders along the river. Still others are hiking the numerous trails, either on the mountain or up to Fish Creek Falls.

While Steamboat may be better known as the birthplace of ski jumping and the nation’s oldest continuously operating ski resort, the Yampa River that flows through the center of town plays a big role in the town’s fortunes.

The river, gushing by 100 yards or so to the east, provides a backbeat on Friday nights to the free summertime concerts. On this Friday night, local and visiting Steamers were grooving to The Lil Smokies with special guest Jon Stickley Trio and Buffalo Commons.

Each weekend from mid-June to mid-August each year, you can witness a virtual wagon train of horse trailers and a downtown full of cowpokes on their way to Steamboat Pro Rodeo Series, another riverside tradition that dates back a century in the town.

The town's main bike path begins its trek at the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge on the west end of town, meandering part of the way along the spine of the Yampa.

Yampa River

Many ranchers have failed to measure their water intake from the iconic Yampa River in northwestern Colorado, as now required by state rules. 

A call to travelers

The river’s origins are near the town of Yampa, southwest of Steamboat. 

According to Friends of the Yampa, the word Yampa is a Native American name for a white flowering, parsley-like plant, Periderrida gairdneri. It can be simplified to “water plant” or “common plant.”

It’s at Steamboat where the Yampa starts to show its strength. It doubles in size as it enters the city, gaining water from a half-dozen tributaries. It doubles again outside the city, when it joins the Elk River.

Though it may be relatively short — at 250 miles, it’s not even in the top 10 of the longest rivers in Colorado — it’s a major tributary of the Green River, the largest tributary of the Colorado River. The Yampa provides about one-third of Colorado’s contribution to the Colorado River, according to Friends of the Yampa and American Rivers.

What later became Steamboat Springs was originally the summer hunting grounds of the Ute Indians, according to local lore. The Yampatika Ute and Arapaho tribes visited the mineral springs, sacred places of physical and spiritual healing.

When early French trappers heard the whispering springs, they thought they were hearing a steamboat’s engines. That's how this river town got its name.

The Yampa is a point of local pride. The city’s website says the waterway “distinguishes Steamboat Springs from other mountain resort communities, and the river greatly contributes to the community’s year-round appeal. Few other communities enjoy such proximity to a major river with a high quality trout fishery, broad range of recreational opportunities and high level of scenic quality.”

According to Michelle Carr,  distribution and collections manager for the city, a 2017 community-wide survey ranked the health of the Yampa above police and sewer services.

The Yampa provides Steamboat with a solid part of its summer recreation business: fishing, tubing, kayaking, canoeing and rafting. 

People come for the mountains and stay for the river, said Lindsey Marlow, executive director of Friends of the Yampa.  “Everyone has some connection to the river.”

It’s also a kind of natural example of a river, she said.

C Hole Steamboat Springs

Charlie's Hole on the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs, for kayakers who like their water wild.

The river is wild

“We like to say the Yampa is wild,” because the river flows unencumbered by a dam or large diversion, Marlow said. "The river changes constantly and offers something for everyone."

Most of the developed areas in the valley are based on the Yampa and the Elk rivers, she said, explaining, “You feel a connection when you recreate on the river.”

But the fortunes have turned for the Yampa in the past three years.

Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, a member of the Yampa-Green-White basin roundtable and fourth generation rancher, said in 2019 that in the Yampa basin, “We use only 10 percent of our water. Ninety percent of our water goes to Lake Powell.”

That was before the drought got so bad this year that water had to be sent downstream from Colorado's Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs and from the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah to keep the hydropower at Lake Powell going.

A year ago, Routt County was in severe drought, with a portion of the county south of Steamboat in extreme drought. As of Sept. 1, 2021, the whole county is in extreme or exceptional — the worst level — of drought, according to the US Drought Monitor.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources put a “call” on the Yampa on August 5, the third in the last three years. A call means that some water users won't getting their legal allotments. Monsoons that followed days later meant the call lasted just a few days.

But the river has been voluntarily closed to recreational activity within the city since July 8. The cause: low stream flows and too high temperatures that endanger river life.

Ranchers Drought

Rancher Jim Stanko checks the water level of an irrigation ditch, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, on his ranch near Steamboat Springs. Stanko said that due to drought conditions this year, if he can't harvest enough hay to feed his cattle, he may need to sell off some of his herd.

Changing with climate

The Yampa is overheating.

That put to an end, at least within Steamboat, to summer recreation opportunities and businesses tied to the river.

Carr said in a recent case study presented during the August Colorado Water Congress that they have been unable to pinpoint the exact cause of the temperature problems. "We recognize the difficulty and challenges around trying to understand the causes and sources of temperature within complex stream systems," she said during the presentation. "But we also recognize that climate change will only exacerbate the issue and now is the time to start working on solutions to address the issue." 

river closure Yampa Steamboat

River closure notification along the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs. 

The voluntary closure of the river through the city is one locals appear to take seriously. A bike ride down the Yampa Core shows more than a dozen places to hop off into the river for a day’s fun. But on this particular day, the only life on the river appears to be from the occasional flock of ducks and a few souls staring longingly at the river’s edge.

The Yampa's problems, however, have been looming for some time, said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Conservancy District. The district's water rights portfolio includes owning and managing the Stagecoach and Yamcolo reservoirs.

He points to decades of compact calls on a 22.7-mile tributary of the Yampa known as Bear River. Rossi, who has been with the district in various positions since 2009, says he could see it coming. 

The Yampa is really a split system with dual personalities, Rossi said. The bifurcation points is at Stagecoach; upstream of the reservoir, there’s a long history of stored water for agricultural purposes. The Yamcolo, part of the Bear river system, is almost entirely agricultural as well. It's also been going under a compact call every year for decades, Rossi said.

That call can start as early as April or May, and lasts all the way through irrigation season to late September or October, he said. “If you take a focused view, the canary in the coal mine has been the Bear River for decades. All the stored water gets used,” whether it’s public or private reservoirs. 

That part of the system, the upper part of the river, provides institutional knowledge for what rhe lower part of the system is just now starting to experience, Rossi said.

“We’ve lived with this for years. We would encourage the lower basins to look upstream, and look to the lessons learned for use of a scarce resource,” he said.

YAMPA RIVER

Maddie Reynolds takes a casual float down the Yampa River near Steamboat Springs, Colo., July 21, 2005.  (AP Photo/Tyler Arroyo)

Finding wiggle room

Rossi said there's still a little “wiggle room:" big uncontracted water in Elkhead and Stagecoach that can be used for multiple purposes. That could be leading to some intriguing new ideas about just who owns the water.

Ag users have bought up water for decades, to ensure they have what they need, Rossi said. That could be the path forward for the recreational industry.

Rossi said people who use and love the river can pitch in, literally, and idea that's gained steam over the last decade.

Fly-fishing groups have asked if they could buy water and put it in the river. Donors also could be large ranch owners with fishing leases, who may have the means to buy water from the local reservoir and ensure it flows past their ranch.

"The details of how you deliver that water downstream is where it gets really difficult," Rossi said.

"That's where the community's intentions and desires are running into the reality of decades of the prior appropriation system," which Rossi said is slow to change but believes will change. 

Ranchers Drought

A pipe on the Stanko cattle ranch diverts water from the Woolery irrigation ditch, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, near Steamboat Springs, Colo. With the Yampa River approaching record low levels due to severe drought, ranchers are only able to use a third of their normal water supply, and Jim Stanko says if he can't harvest enough hay to feed his cattle, he may need to sell off some of his herd. (AP Photo/Brittany Peterson)

Town takes stock of the Yampa

The city can see the changes coming, too. When the Colorado Water Plan was unveiled in 2015, Steamboat was the first in Colorado to develop a river health assessment and streamflow management plan. The plan was adopted by the City Council in 2018 and is now in the second year of implementation. That included a partnership with The Nature Conservancy to create the Yampa River Fund, a $4.5 million endowment for river restoration and agricultural improvements.

“If we can’t consistently get enough water for all river users, how can each of us give a little,” Marlow said. “As a community, we have to ask what we are willing to give up and what we want to keep.”

Those answers, so far, have not been forthcoming.

The plan comes at a time when drought and climate change are exacerbating the threat to the river. “Our mission of environmental and recreational uses is completely threatened by drought. Those are often the last considerations for use” behind the economy and livelihood. “If this river is devastated by drought every year, people won’t want to live here.

Marlow said Moffat County is looking for ways to diversify its economy from coal, and one of those ideas is a whitewater park. But the county also relies on the Yampa, and Marlow questioned whether that will be feasible, given the continuing drought.

Kelly Romero-Heaney led the assessment project for the city of Steamboat until June, when she was tapped to become assistant director for water at the state Department of Natural Resources. But she remains in Steamboat, and her heart clearly is still on the Yampa.

The streamflow management plan pulled diverse interests together, Romero-Heaney explained, Identifying the risks to the river’s stream health and what strategies can be employed to deal with them. The strategies included everything from securing releases out of storage to bolster flows in dry years, to restoring the riparian forest along the river.

The river has been on an Environmental Protection Agency’s temperature list since 2016, she said. “We continue to have temperature issues on the Yampa, tied to less flow, to climate change, and solar radiation hitting the water surface.”

One strategy is to replant the forest along the river to block the solar radiation. They’re intending to use cottonwoods, which grow and spread quickly and eventually provide shade to the river. That also will require some planting on private lands as well, she said.

Cottonwoods in Steamboat's Botanic Gardens

Cottonwoods line the main entrance to the Yampa River Botanic Gardens in Steamboat Springs.

Roots for the future

It’s not just some pie-in-the-sky idea. The city is working on a feasibility study to address water temperature, which Romeo-Heaney said includes working with the Freshwater Trust of Portland, Oregon. That organization has developed analytical tools to quantify the amount of heat that can be removed from the steam by restoring riparian forests, which can be turned into credits that can be traded to a utility that might need to meet certain temperature limits, she explained.

What the future holds for the Yampa?

“The best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago,” Romero-Heaney said. “The second best time is today.”

She pointed out that along the entrance to the local Botanic Gardens is a row of cottonwoods, planted by school kids 20 years ago.

They’re now at least 20 feet tall and provide excellent shade.

“It gives you a picture, if we start today, what it will look like in 20 years," Romero-Heaney said. "The time is now.”

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