Water being released from Stagecoach Reservoir to boost Yampa River flows

TNC dips a paddle in Yampa's fate

Tom Ross
The confluence of the Yampa River and Elk River (the latter flowing beneath the U.S. HIghway Bridge) west of Stamboat Springs on June 24, 2017.
Tom Ross

If you thought the flows in the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs, particularly upstream from the confluence of Fish Creek, were pretty anemic during the weekend, you were right. But as it was in 2016, help is on the way for the river.

Once again this year, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust and the Colorado Water Conservation Board are collaborating to arrange a release of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to boost lagging flows in the Yampa River under an agreement with dam owner, the Upper Yampa Conservancy District. New this year is the support of The Nature Conservancy.

Last year, conservation releases did not begin until mid-September, but in 2017, with the river already flowing well below normal, water releases from the dam were set at 10 cubic feet per second beginning July 11. But it can’t go on forever this way.

With this year’s release, the role of the Conservation Board, a division of the State Department of Natural Resources, has expanded to include committing to contributing up to $46,692 for water releases. At the same time, the CWCB will undertake the third, and final, approved year to release water into the Yampa. The opportunity cannot be renewed  under current law, Water Trust staff attorney Zach Smith said.

“This year’s effort highlights the limits of what current law allows but also highlights the resolve and commitment, both in hours and funding, our partners have to continue to work together for the Yampa River,” he said said in a news release.

This year’s program will forge a new relationship with the Nature Conservancy to carry on the effort when conditions warrant. The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch just east of Hayden straddles the Yampa, and for 2017, the global conservation organization has agreed to bring $50,000 to the effort to purchase water releases out of Stagecoach. It will also explore sustainable funding for future years.

“Protecting and restoring the Yampa River Basin is a top priority for the Nature Conservancy in Colorado,” the Conservancy’s Colorado State Director Carlo Fernandez was quoted as saying in the news release. “This project is a great example of partners coming together to achieve more than each could do on their own.”

Smith said new efforts to bolster the flows in the river during dry seasons could range from seeking ways for the Nature Conservancy and the Water Trust to collaborate on locating new funding sources to perhaps seeking a water source with long-term legal protection.

Upper Yampa Manager Kevin McBride pointed out it’s only because there is a moderate amount of water storage in the upper reaches of the Yampa that mid-summer conservation releases are possible.

“The fact there is stored water at all makes this possible,” he said. “Commitments and contracts can change, but storage is a more feasible alternative than water rights. There’s a reason people have been after it.”

Flows in the Yampa have been supplemented with the participation of the Water Trust in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. The Yampa was flowing at 128 cubic feet per second Monday afternoon, 67 cfs below the median for the date.

“This year was a very odd year, in that all the low snow melted off so early,” McBride said. “We didn’t even quite top-off Stagecoach this year.”

Water Trust water resources engineer and former Steamboat resident Mickey O’Hara said the return to healthier natural flows in the Yampa this summer “depends on if, and when the monsoons happen.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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