New endowed fund seeks to improve Yampa River health across Northwest Colorado
February 3, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Yampa River will soon have its own endowed fund.
A coalition of water managers, ranchers, river rats and conservationists are working to assemble the Yampa River Fund, an endowed fund that would help pay for projects to improve the health of the Yampa River.
The Yampa River Fund would create an endowment aimed at three goals, said Nancy Smith, sustainable food and water program coordinator for The Nature Conservancy Colorado.
The first goal of the fund is to provide a sustainable funding source for reservoir releases from Stagecoach and Elkhead reservoirs in partnership with the Colorado Water Trust.
The Water Trust has released reservoir water to supplement flows nearly annually since 2012. Every summer since then, except for the summer of 2014, the Water Trust and its partners have purchased water out of Stagecoach Reservoir to release into the Yampa and increase flows. Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, said this could cost more than $100 thousand in a bad year.
"It's just going to create a healthier river in the long-term," said Friends of the Yampa President Kent Vertrees. "We're facing a situation where the river is going to get shallower and hotter in the future. That's the forecast, so our goal is to increase the flow somehow through releases out of Stagecoach Reservoir and then cool that river down by shading the river, initially.”
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This is the second goal of the fund — cooling the river in hot, dry summers.
Much of the efforts, initially, will be to plant new trees on the riverbank and fence cottonwoods already growing on the Yampa's banks to keep the beavers from chewing on shade trees. Vertrees called this action "low-hanging fruit," but he said the fund would also seek to pay for new ways to cool the river.
The third element of the fund will help agricultural producers pay for more efficient irrigation and diversion practices.
West Routt County commissioner and rancher Doug Monger explained that many family ranches on the Yampa, including his, claimed their water right at the turn of the century. Much of the agricultural water infrastructure in the Yampa Valley is the same infrastructure pioneers placed here.
"Ninety percent of our infrastructure is 100 years old," he said, adding that though ranchers are independent, they'll participate in programs that benefit their production and the river.
"For a lot of our ag diverters, the financial resources are certainly a limiting factor," Romero-Heaney said. " It's not that they don't want to improve their head gates or diversion structures or operate more efficiently. It can be expensive. Having a funding source — at least to help match whatever private contribution they're providing — could really make a difference in getting those projects done."
An initial donation will fund operations of the fund, Smith said.
Organizers are still designing the structure and governance of the Yampa River Fund. The fund is slated for a public launch, including a party, in late summer. The public will be able to contribute to the fund once it's launched.
"This fund will provide an excellent opportunity for people that want to help the river and our watershed but don't quite know how," Romero-Heaney said.
The coalition behind the fund has been in conversation with the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, which houses similar funds including the Trails Maintenance Endowment Fund and the WHILD fund for habitat improvement, according to Community Foundation Executive Director Mark Andersen.
The benefit of an endowed fund, Vertrees said, is that it can be leveraged to win matching grants from other organizations and agencies.
"Grant availability changes. Private donors come and go. It can be a lot of work," said Romero-Heaney. "Drought years can come upon us quite quickly."
She explained that in drought years, the Colorado Water Trust frequently works very quickly to raise a large amount of money to release reservoir water an increase flows.
"If we have an endowment fund, we can predict with some degree of certainty how much money will be generated out of that endowment year by year," she said.
The Yampa Fund aims to improve the entire swath of the Yampa and some of its tributaries, from the Flattops to Dinosaur National Monument.
"This is not the Steamboat Springs Water Fund," said Smith. "This is the Yampa River Fund."
The Nature Conservancy, which has established more than 30 water funds internationally, according to Smith, is the technical lead on the project. Smith said a number of organizations, including the cities of Steamboat Springs and Craig, Routt and Moffat counties, Smartwool, Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and the Colorado Water Trust, among many others, are involved in the coalition assembling the fund.