Saving Steamboat’s springs: City wants to protect the ski town’s namesake |

Saving Steamboat’s springs: City wants to protect the ski town’s namesake

Adding protections to 10 of the city's mineral springs could keep them chugging for centuries

The Steamboat Spring, the namesake of the town of Steamboat Springs, was surrounded by deep snow Friday, March 10, 2023. The Parks and Recreation commission directed staff to pursue local and state historical designation for the mineral springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

About 150 years ago, French trappers heard a chugging sound that reminded them of the steamboats that dominated shipping corridors like the mighty Mississippi River.

But the trappers didn’t find a steam-powered vessel as they approached the noise; they found a natural mineral spring and geyser that would spout as high as 15 feet — a striking geological feature that would later be named the Steamboat Spring.

That chugging sound has now been silent for more than a century, and the geyser no longer expels the mineral rich water.

The railroad arrived in the Yampa Valley in 1909, bringing a boom in commercial industry with it. Construction disturbed the natural plumbing of the spring, leaving the gurgling pool in the form in which it exists now along the railroad tracks near 13th Street. Soda Spring also fizzed out during construction on U.S. Highway 40.

Officials are trying to make sure Steamboat Springs won’t lose any more.

A special committee formed last year to focus on protecting natural mineral springs has been discussing ways to protect them long term. The goal is to make “sure that Steamboat Springs can actually be called Steamboat Springs several hundred years from now and that the springs will still be bubbling,” said Craig Robinson, the city’s open space and trails manager.

On Wednesday, March 8, Robinson and Historic Preservation Planner Caitlin Berube-Smith shared a plan to add historic designations to 10 springs in town. While designation at the state level is more honorary, Berube-Smith said local a historic designation is more protective and puts regulatory action in place.

Colored rocks show through the waters of Steamboat Spring on Friday, March 10, 2023. The Parks and Recreation commission has directed city staff to pursue local and state historical designations for 10 mineral springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Berube-Smith said the process to add a historic designation is relatively simple. It would add a boundary around each spring that would require additional steps in the planning process if a development was proposed nearby.

“What the Mineral Springs Steering Committee discussed was actually creating a ring, or three sets of boundaries, around the spring, and each set of boundaries would be accompanied by some sort of maintenance planning,” Berube-Smith said. “The highest level of regulation and protective measures would occur closest to the springs, and then it would trickle out from there.”

Lithia Spring already has a local designation, but city officials intend to add a state designation to it as well. Nine other springs are currently unprotected, and the Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation commission approved a motion Wednesday to move forward with both levels of protection.

The nine springs include Black Sulphur Spring, Iron Spring, Lake Springs, Narcissus Spring, Terrace Spring, Soda Spring, Steamboat Spring, Sulphur Cave and Springs, and Sulphur Spring. Each are on city property and the city also owns the rights to the water that flows from them.

Waters fed by the Terrace Spring flow over the rocks into the waters of the Yampa River on Friday, March 10, 2023. The Parks and Recreation commission directed staff to pursue into local and state historical designation on mineral springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

In practice, a local designation could require additional study during the planning process for how a project could impact a spring. Berube-Smith gave an example of a stop sign being installed near a spring.

“If it happens to be in the designation boundary, there would be certain maintenance actions that they would need to take before they could dig in the ground to make sure that we’re not disturbing the water under the ground to negatively impact the spring,” Berube-Smith said.

This added layer of review would go through the city’s Historic Preservation Commission in a process that Berube-Smith said was very similar to regular permiting procedures.

Local historian and author Dagny McKinley, whose book, “The Springs of Steamboat,” focuses on the town’s namesake, said that to her, the springs are like a mini Yellowstone National Park. McKinley leads a tour of Steamboat’s springs in the summer time, showing visitors the wonders they hold.

“As we learned with the Steamboat Spring and the Soda Spring, once we lose them, we don’t get a chance to bring them back,” McKinley said. “Now is our chance to protect these remaining springs for future generations.”

Getting the historical designations will likely require more research, especially at the state level, and McKinley said she is happy to help.

Peter Van De Carr, a local outfitter, said he was thrilled about protecting the springs, as he has long been on a “crusade” to preserve the springs of Steamboat.

“We have a wonderful ski resort that’s named Steamboat, but too many times we leave out the springs when we’re talking about our town,” Van De Carr said. “Hopefully, this will bring that to a front.”

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