Steamboat Parks and Rec reviews Yampa River closure policies
The Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation Commission completed its annual review of commercial river operations for the Yampa River on Wednesday, Nov. 9, rehashing the back-and-forth of the summer of 2022 in which the river was closed and reopened many times.
“The closures were strictly adhered to by the public,” said Peter Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports. “I mean, it was beautiful.”
While the closures went smoothly, the reopenings were less effortless, prompting a discussion in the policies that prompt the river to reopen.
Backdoor Sports offers tube rentals during the summer, and Van De Carr has been critical of the city’s criteria for closing and reopening the river, saying it needs to be more objective, transparent and science-based.
The city’s policy directs officials to close the Yampa if the water temperature exceeds 75 degrees Fahrenheit for two or more consecutive days, if the river’s flow drops below 85 cubic feet per second or if the levels of dissolved oxygen average less than six milligrams per liter for 48 hours at the Fifth Street bridge.
The criteria for reopening the river is less cut and dry, though. Reopening the river requires either the city manager or a designee in consultation with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife to determine that conditions have improved to allow for aquatic wildlife health with those conditions forecasted into the future.
Van De Carr compared the city’s currently policy to moving goalposts, and he lobbied for the parameters to be more concrete and publicly communicated.
“We really got to nail down this opening-closing criteria,” Van De Carr said.
In response to feedback from local outfitters, the city’s Parks and Recreation department wants to develop a more nuanced framework for closing and reopening the river.
City officials said they hope to enlist the help of an aquatic biologist to dive deeper into the effects of recreation on the aquatic wildlife in the Yampa. The city’s Parks, Open Space and Trails Manager Craig Robinson said he hopes the research can be completed over the winter months, so the city might be ready for a trial period in June.
The Yampa River was closed to tubers and boaters twice during the summer. It was first closed on July 19 due to high temperatures, then reopened about a week later and closed again on Aug. 2 due to high temperatures. Robinson said his staff was surprised to see such high water temperatures with flows above 100 cfs.
“Might be the first time I’ve seen that since I’ve been here,” Robinson said.
The city counted 18,304 tubers, rafters, kayakers and paddleboarders on the Yampa River from June 23 to July 29.
Billy Atkinson, an aquatic biologist for CPW, said the decision to reopen rivers after they’ve closed is complicated and must account for “cumulative effects” to aquatic wildlife. He said he understands that the section of the Yampa flowing through Steamboat is treated as multi-use by the city, but he emphasized that aquatic wildlife should be the top priority.
“We love a healthy river for our aquatic species first and our recreational and consumptive use second,” Atkinson said, adding that the city’s threshold for closures is lower than the statewide 71 degree threshold.
Atkinson said that sport fish populations aren’t what they used to be in 2015, which he admitted is also due to northern pike and habitat fragmentation.
The annual review on Wednesday was for information purposes only, and no formal decisions were made. City staff intends to use the discoveries from Wednesday’s meeting to inform future decisions regarding river policies.
“It’s a valuable resource and we intend to take care of it,” said the Chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission Calder Young.
To reach Spencer Powell, call 970-871-4229 or email him at spowell@SteamboatPilot.com
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