The Yampa River was graded for the first time ever. What score did the waterway earn?

Watershed Scientist Kim Lennberg with Alba Watershed Consulting, left, and Environmental Program Manager Jenny Frithsen with Friends of the Yampa collect data in summer 2022 in the Yampa River near Craig.
Friends of the Yampa/Courtesy photo

In the first official scorecard of Yampa River system health, the middle section of the Yampa earned an overall score of B.

That B means the middle Yampa River from Pump Station boat launch east of Hayden to South Beach about 2 miles south of Craig is a “highly functional river where some stressors are present but in general it remains largely resilient to disturbances and may rely on limited management,” said Jenny Frithsen, environmental program manager with Friends of the Yampa, which is managing the scorecard project.

Within the overall score of B as part of the Yampa River Scorecard Project, the middle Yampa earns an A for dissolved oxygen, PH levels and metals in the water, “the only ecological indicators that got an A,” Frithsen reported.

The first results of the long-term scorecard project will be released fully in early May with information available at Data collection started in the middle Yampa in summer 2022, and the overall project will include five river sections.

During summer 2023, data collection will focus on the stretch starting from Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area to the Pump Station boat launch.

One concern highlighted in the first report is a D score due to temperature exceedances along the section of the river at the Moffat and Routt county line, Frithsen said. The section of concern is located just upstream of the confluence of Elkhead Creek with the Yampa River where the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment designation changes from a cold water to a warm water fishery. Cooler temperatures are designated upstream of the confluence, but as the elevation drops, warmer waters for fish are designated by the state agency.

“Where the regulation is stricter, our score was a D exceeding the temperature standard set by the CDPHE,” Frithsen said.

Participants in the summer 2022 Yampa River Ecological Field Course through Colorado Mountain College collect data as part of the Yampa River Scorecard Project.
Friends of the Yampa/Courtesy photo

The main stem of the Yampa River is classified as “Cold Water Tier 1” from its headwaters in the Flat Tops to its confluence with Elkhead Creek, then as “Warm Water Tier 1” from the Elkhead Creek confluence downstream through Dinosaur National Park. These temperature tiers are based on resident fish species and the water temperature ranges in which those species can thrive.

The river scorecard is derived via approximately 45 different indicators in and around the Yampa River that fall under three main areas: ecological health and function, river uses and management, and people and community benefits.

“By seeing what areas are a C, D or F, we can now focus on action and how to improve these numbers,” said Lindsey Marlow, executive director for Friends of the Yampa. “We now have a template to start conversations with people in this basin about the health of the river and its ecosystem services.”

Marlow said another key finding that stands out is riverscape connectivity, or a measurement of the ease in which a river can move around such as a connected flood plain and river channel.

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“There are areas that score so well at 95% and others that need help at 65%, and now we get to embark on the exciting task of figuring out how to improve floodplain connectivity,” Marlow said.

Frithsen said scoring a river is no easy feat, and information collection teams spent countless hours on the river taking measurements, performing tests and logging data. In addition, a citizen survey of recreational river users last summer collected some 50 responses, but organizers hope to collect more community responses this summer with the help, in part, of flyfishing guides and their clients.

“We aim to be a long-term data collection effort so we can track changes over time and use that data to highlight opportunities to improve river health and provide a source of information for land managers and land owners within the river corridor in order to make more informed decisions,” Frithsen said.

Development of the scorecard project, which is a recommendation of the region’s Integrated Water Management Plan, began in early 2021. The nonprofit plans to release an annual scorecard based on meticulous measurements of a diverse range of indicators, with each section of the river re-evaluated every five years.

In addition to Alba Watershed Consulting and Friends of the Yampa, other entities that helped gather data include Colorado Mountain College staff and students, Colorado State University and Audubon Rockies.

According to the river scorecard website, the long-term study is needed because the Yampa River basin includes simultaneous projects and planning efforts, data gaps related to river health and function, a lack of public accessibility to data and a lack of a comprehensive understanding of the ecological health and community benefits of the river.

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