River wild: Concerns grow over this year’s tubing season on the Yampa

Zoe and Martin Verna are all smiles while kayaking down the Yampa River on Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

Throughout the summer, people recreating on or near the Yampa River may notice more than just the clear water and beautiful scenery: a collection of popped tubes, crumpled cans and broken glass bottles lining the river bed or clinging to rocks.

“It’s bad for our fish habitat, it’s bad for our recreationalists and it’s bad for the environment,” said Angela Cosby, Steamboat Springs parks and recreation director.

Despite Herculean efforts to spread awareness, people still leave garbage in or along the river. A lot of that garbage includes tubes.

This year, however, in an attempt to limit the number of those popped and left-behind tubes, the parks and recreation commission and Steamboat Springs City Council have enacted two measures to protect the river and its aquatic wildlife.

The first requires those buying tubes from noncommercial river operators, such as Walmart, Walgreens and Christy Sports, to pay an added $5 fee when they purchase the tube. The money will go toward river education campaigns, signage and cleanups.

The second measure from the city provides the city’s three commercial river operators — Backdoor Sports, Bucking Rainbow Outfitters and One Stop Ski Shop — the opportunity to flex their daily allotments. In previous years, each business was allowed a certain number of tube allotments per day, but in 2021 the businesses are given a certain number of monthly allotments that can be used whenever they’d like.

Emalee Erickson uses a stand-up paddleboard on the Yampa River on Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

Impact to businesses

While he fully supports the added $5 fee, Peter Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports, said he is deeply concerned about the allotment rule as he believes it will lead to a larger number of tubes on the river all at once, potentially leading to more issues.

“As companies, if we’re trying to get the most money for our buck, we’re going to try to cram as many people as we can in July because that’s our busiest month,” Van De Carr said. “It’s just going to be such an unbelievable cluster.”

The three businesses have a combined total of potentially 17,800 allotments each month — with 1,300 from One Stop Ski Shop, 4,500 from Bucking Rainbow and 12,000 from Backdoor Sports. Because of those high numbers, Van De Carr said there could potentially be more tubes on the river in one day than there are people living in town.

“This new rule is going to be such a mess and put a tremendous strain on our parking,” he said. “Not to mention the environmental danger of putting that many people on the river.”

Van De Carr said he acknowledges he should have spoken to City Council while decisions were being made in the fall and winter, but he believes this summer will create larger problems for the river and city.

“Let’s let the scientists and business people and environmentalists come up with a plan,” he said. “The people that don’t really understand it are the ones calling the shots, and it’s going to be a mess.”

However, city staff and council members said they felt the changes would encourage people to rent and buy tubes from the commercial operators. It would benefit the overall health of the river, according to the city, because commercial tubes are more durable and the companies provide education to those using the river.

“We want people to make a better investment when they’re going to be using that tube over and over,” Cosby said. “We wanted to eliminate that barrier as much as possible, within a reasonable measure.”

A group of rafters enjoy the sunshine on the Yampa River on Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

COVID-19 and drought

Business leaders in Steamboat said they expect the city to see larger crowds of tourists than in a normal year as COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted and people are anxious to get out after staying inside for a year.

The U.S. Drought Monitor also ranked Routt County as experiencing exceptional drought, the most intense of the four drought markers.

River advocates and others expect the drought and high number of visitors to further contribute to a potentially harmful summer for the river.

“I think we’re all aware of the potential or likely lack of water that’s going to be in the Yampa this summer,” said Ben Beall, president of Friends of the Yampa. “Many of us are looking to what we can do to not have an adverse impact on the river in a year like this year.”

While some impacts of drought are inevitable, Beall said community members can help mitigate adverse impacts on the river by respecting the city’s ban on disposable glass and plastic, renting or buying tubes from commercial operators and spreading awareness.

“Tubing is a situation where some users are not from our local area and really could benefit from those of us who are more aware helping drive awareness and encouraging that respect,” Beall said. “I think that’s something that we should plan for and think about.”

Opening and closing the river

Commercial river operators open their doors to tubing when the river reaches between 600 to 800 cubic feet per second, which operators said usually happens around June and July, though in a low-snow year like 2021 it could happen sooner.

The city and Colorado Parks and Wildlife then enact river closures if and when the river gets down to 85 cfs or river temperatures exceed 75 degrees. Those closures are enacted to protect the river’s wildlife, according to Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat water resources manager, as it takes away the added stressors of high numbers of river recreators. Though that stress is dramatically increased when river temperatures increase and flow drops.

“If you have tubers, paddleboarders and fly-fishers disturbing them, fish are going to get increasingly stressed,” she said.

As of Friday evening, the river’s temperature at a point in downtown Steamboat was recorded at about 50 degrees, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Its flow was measured at 1,210 cfs.

While it’s difficult to predict exactly when the Yampa will drop, environmental experts are concerned it could happen earlier than usual due to lack of snowpack, rising temperatures and exceptional drought.

“The river is going to drop much earlier than it did in 2018,” said Romero-Heaney, referencing another exceptional drought year. “If we get decent rain, it could sustain longer.”

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