Community Agriculture Alliance: Yampa River Fund is an innovative solution to address a drying Colorado River Basin

Andy Baur and Lindsay Schlageter
Community Agriculture Alliance
A golden eagle takes flight over the Yampa River shortly after being released by the Born Free Wiildlife Rehabilitation Center. The Yampa River provides drinking water, hydro power, irrigation water, recreational opportunities and important wildlife habitat.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Colorado River provides drinking water for more than 40 million people, hydroelectric power to meet the needs of over 7 million people and water for 30 tribal nations.

It irrigates around 5 million acres of fields that supply vegetables to the entire world and supports a thriving $26 billion recreation and tourism economy, as well as a wide variety of wildlife.

But climate change is hitting the Colorado River hard. The West has been in the grip of a drought for over 20 years that scientists believe is the worst in a thousand years.

The Colorado River’s levels are only as robust as its headwaters tributaries, like the Yampa, whose flows are powered by dwindling snowmelt. Higher year-round temperatures also mean that the water evaporates faster while water use increases. These challenges make it harder to balance the needs of people and the fish and wildlife that depend on healthy, flowing rivers.

This year, water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two major reservoirs that store the Colorado River’s water, are down to critically low levels and may soon drop too low to spin the hydroelectric turbines in their dams. Some smaller reservoirs, such as Flaming Gorge, began emergency releases in summer 2021 to prop up water levels in these lakes.

The situation is serious, but there’s plenty that can be done to improve it. With the West continuing to get hotter and drier due to climate change it is critical to work together and plan for this future.

The Yampa River Fund is one such solution. This innovative approach is helping the Yampa River Valley prepare for and adapt to climate change by funding projects that improve agricultural irrigation infrastructure, adopt innovative water sharing approaches and enable water releases at critically dry periods. These projects have the additional benefit of providing water for fish and animals as well as people.

Throughout its short tenure, the fund has issued three rounds of grants that have funded projects such as river restoration to protect fish, stream flows and recreation opportunities. These include elements of the Maybell diversion restoration, engineering for the whitewater park in Craig and much needed water releases from Stagecoach and Elkhead reservoirs.

All of these projects contribute to the overall goal of protecting the water supply, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities provided to us by the Yampa River.

Led by a Board of 21 local and state entities and with the support of many more stakeholder, the Yampa River Fund is a key example of efforts that will be needed to keep the Colorado River and its tributaries healthy for agriculture, wildlife and people moving forward.

Andy Baur serves as manager of the The Yampa River Fund manager, and Lindsay Schlageter is senior media relations and communications manager at The Nature Conservancy. For more, For more about the Community Agriculture Alliance,

Spring runoff has the waters of the Yampa River rolling through downtown Steamboat Springs. The Yampa River Fund offers funding for projects that improve agricultural irrigation infrastructure, adopt innovative water sharing approaches and enable water releases at critically dry periods.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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