Steamboat’s newly adopted river plan could make waves for Yampa River health
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It’s been a low water year for the Yampa River.
The Yampa River Basin has received 76 percent of its average amount of precipitation so far this year.
In Steamboat Springs, the Yampa River was open to recreation from June 12 to July 9 and Aug. 14 to 28, a total of 41 days. For the remainder of the summer months, the river was closed in order to protect habitat as water temperatures rose and flows dropped.
“If we have a whole summer with limited rain and we don’t get those monsoons, then we’re going to end up with low flows,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs.
As farmers irrigate hay and town folk water lawns, more water is pulled from the already low river.
“The river just doesn’t have an opportunity to recover,” she said.
Near the river’s western confluence with the Green River, a U.S. Geological Survey gauge reported that flows fell to 16.4 cubic feet per second on Aug. 21 at Deerlodge Park in Dinosaur National Monument. The average water level for the same date is 355 cfs.
The low flows threatened curtailment of use of the river last week. The main stem of the Yampa has never seen curtailment.
Flows in Dinosaur increased as reservoir water and rainfall made its way downstream to a level hovering between 100 and 250 cfs, with water flowing at 115 cfs late Wednesday morning.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division Engineer Erin Light said flows in the river are falling again. As irrigators turn their taps back on, she said the administration of a call on the river is still possible.
A document approved by the Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday, Aug. 28 could help guide water managers working to protect the health of the river in low water years like this one.
The Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management plan is a 58-page document that outlines community goals for the river and actions recommended to conserve the river. It’s a guiding document intended to help water managers and elected officials make decisions to manage and protect river health. It outlines several priority projects related to the Yampa.
“I think it will help to guide council and other elected officials and other water managers in the basin in the direction of preserving the good thing the Yampa River has going for it,” said Romero-Heaney.
That “good thing” Romero-Heaney referred to is the fact that the Yampa is a free-flowing stream and a large portion of the river corridor is preserved, she said.
Though the plan was adopted by the city, its reach extends well beyond Steamboat. The city’s boundary contains only 9.9 of the 636 square miles of watershed that flows into the river, Romero-Heaney wrote in an email to the Steamboat Pilot & Today. This means a number of partner organizations will likely play a role in implementing the plan.
If implemented, one recommendation included in the plan would see continued reservoir releases into the river to boost flows in dry periods. The plan also seeks to explore voluntary projects that would pay water users to participate in projects enhancing the health of the river.
So far, reservoir releases have largely been funded by donations to the Colorado Water Trust.
The Nature Conservancy is leading an effort to study the feasibility and need to create a Yampa River Water Fund that could help pay for these projects and other conservation and restoration projects.
“That is really key for us to be able to fund Stream Management Plan implementation and other watershed-related projects sustainably,” Romero-Heaney said.
Another solution proposed by the plan would help cool the river in the summer heat. Warm water temperatures stress fish and other aquatic life that live in the Yampa’s cold water ecosystem.
“What we found is that air temperature and solar radiation is such a strong driver for stream temperature that if you don’t have a healthy river forest, meaning the canopy cover and the cottonwoods, then you can really see the water heat up,” Romero-Heaney said. “We’re working to pull together a project to help restore that forest to provide additional shade and reduce stream temperatures.”
Managers have known that flows and trees are good for the river, but now, they can measure those benefits. With the plan in place, Romero-Heaney said managers can measure and predict the benefits stream flows and riparian trees provide to the long-term health of the river and optimize their spending accordingly.
The Stream Management Plan also envisions the formation of a “stream team” of city employees to review potential projects and policies affecting river health.
The plan was developed over the course of the last 18 months, with an advisory committee at the helm comprised of representatives of water advocacy and management organizations, city and state employees, river recreation groups and agricultural organizations. The group met with community groups and held workshops to refine the plan’s objectives, Romero-Heaney said.
Development of the plan was funded by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the city, Routt County, the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable, the Yampa Valley Fly Fishers and Trout Unlimited Chapter.
“The thing that was really amazing to me in this process of developing the Stream Management Plan is how incredibly supportive our community is of river health and protecting the Yampa,” Romero-Heaney said. “When I say our community, I mean our citizens, our elected officials, our river managers. I mean it’s so apparent that the Yampa Valley cares about the river.”
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