Managers up the amount of reservoir water being released into the Yampa River | SteamboatToday.com

Managers up the amount of reservoir water being released into the Yampa River

The waters of the Yampa River flow away from Steamboat Springs July 17. Officials with The Colorado Water Trust began releasing water from Stagecoach Reservoir to increase the amount of water flowing in the upper Yampa River. The recent low flows and rising temperatures of the water can have a negative impact on the aquatic life in the river and the ecosystems that depend on it.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Water managers have boosted the amount of water being released from Stagecoach Reservoir to increase flows in the Yampa River.

The Colorado Water Trust began releasing 15 cubic feet per second of water into the river July 14. That's about the equivalent of 15 soccer balls worth of water rolling by per second, said Zach Smith, an attorney at the Colorado Water Trust.

New funding sources have allowed the Water Trust to purchase more water and increase the releases to 25 cfs. The additional water brings the total acre-feet intended to be released into the river from 600 acre-feet to 1,800 acre-feet.

"That's actually a huge help for the river," said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs. "If we can get some additional flow to the river, that increases the available habitat for the aquatic life, in addition to helping to bring down the stream temperatures, so it's really important given how dry and hot the summer has been."

Current conditions

The Yampa River was flowing just above 80 cfs on Friday. Releases and rainfall bumped flows up into the high 90s on Saturday afternoon. Daytime water temperatures were between 70 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit over the same time period.

The boost could help the Yampa River meet criteria to re-open the river to recreation within city limits. The magic numbers to lift the voluntary closure are a flow consistently greater than 85 cfs at the Fifth Street Bridge and a water temperature below 75 degrees. Managers also consider the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. Conditions in the Yampa don't meet these criteria right now.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has also instituted a voluntary closure of the river from Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area to the western edge of Steamboat. The agency recently lifted a second, mandatory fishing closure of the tailwaters of Stagecoach Reservoir.

The closures are intended to protect fish, riparian plants and other life that depends on the river. Trout are cold-water fish that have evolved to function best in water temperatures around 50 to 60 degrees, according to a Parks and Wildlife news release. When temperatures exceed 70 degrees, they often stop feeding and become more susceptible to disease.

"We've worked closely with partners up there, including Colorado Parks and Wildlife, to determine that this is an appropriate increase in flows and will create some real benefits for aquatic life and recreational users up there," said Mickey O'Hara, a water resources engineer at the Colorado Water Trust. "It sounds like that reach below Stagecoach Reservoir, since it opened back up, has seen some significant use, and these flows should help fish especially through that region all the way down through the city."

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"The more water that you can release, the farther that water can make it downstream," Romero-Heaney said. She said that the bump in reservoir releases also increases the amount of wet habitat available for the creatures in the water as well as riparian plants.

The Water Trust has purchased enough water from the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District to continue releases at 25 cfs until late August, O'Hara said. The rate of release might be adjusted based on conditions. Romero-Heaney said that if conditions warrant it, the city will work with the Water Trust and other partners to continue reservoir releases in September.

Trout Unlimited, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and the Nature Conservancy contributed funding to purchase water for release.

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@steamboattoday.com or follow her on Twitter, @elHasenbeck.