Water quality in the Yampa River Watershed is good for now

Tom Ross

— Jackie Brown, manager of the Routt County Conservation District, told the Routt County Board of Commissioners this week that the newly minted 2014 State of the Watershed Report is a platform for conserving water quality in the upper Yampa River Basin and a step on the path to acquiring federal grants in order to take action to protect water quality here.

Brown told the commissioners that overall, water quality in the Yampa from its headwaters to its confluence with Elkhead Creek near the Routt/Moffat County line is presently good with some areas of concern, but that doesn’t mean that water quality with such a substantial natural resource that supports human populations and wildlife should be taken for granted.

“We wanted to understand what different water users struggles were and what they saw on the rivers and its tributaries every day that needed their attention,” Brown said. “This is a valuable report for people interested in how the actual river and watershed health works.”

Although Brown took a lead role in the creation of the Watershed Study, it was not created by her agency. Instead, experts representing different segments of the community working as the Upper Yampa River Watershed Group collaborated on the plan. Members ranged from government representatives, to people working in agriculture, recreation and fisheries protection.

Routt County Director of Health and Environment Mike Zopf was a member of the watershed group and praised the plan for being accessible to a wide audience.

“The mapping is great and it presents information in an easy-to-understand fashion,” Zopf said. “This effort of the last year and a half has been great, but the problem we have is having really great water quality over the 1,880 square miles of the watershed. It makes it harder to focus public attention, but I think we need to move forward and be committed to water monitoring and having money in the (county) budget” to continue.

A link to a full-color, flip-through copy of the illustrated watershed plan can be found at the top of the Routt County Conservation District’s Web page.

The new plan is not an action plan, but a status report on the river’s current status. Work on the action plan comes in 2015, Brown said. And this year’s Watershed Status Report preceding an action plan will help make the Yampa and its tributaries eligible for federal funding through the federal Environmental Protection Agency if, and when decision-makers in the watershed decided to tackle a project to improve or protect water quality.

Brown said the EPA prefers to fund grass-roots efforts that are guided by the agency’s goals, rather than waiting until a problem arises creating the need for the EPA to become engaged in enforcement mode. With funding could come the ability to clean up some minor problems in the Upper Yampa Watershed, Brown said.

No decisions have been made, but possible projects in the future could involve rehabilitating Oak Creek.

Initially, that might start with recording temperature data of the creek as a measurement of its health and ability to hold dissolved oxygen, Brown said.

“Eventually, we’d like to look at restoring that creek starting from the wetlands above Decker Park (in the town of Oak Creek) and moving through the sewage treatment plant. It’s consistent with the community planning process for the recreation master plan in Oak Creek. We would, of course, reach out to landowners and we’d also have to work with the railroad.”

In 2015, the Watershed Group expects to learn of the results of a study by the U.S. Geological Survey into the nutrient loads in Stagecoach Reservoir, where a mid-July algae bloom is commonplace, but the reasons for it are not fully understood. That, too, ultimately could become a focus for the watershed action plan.

Brown said the group would like to learn more about how Catamount dam impacts sediment transport by the Yampa in the South Valley, and to address how grazing management is impacting the riparian habitat up and down the watershed. The work done in the creation of the plan also informs interested governments and community groups as Peabody Energy continues working through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval process for the proposed Trout Creek Reservoir.

Members of the Upper Yampa River Watershed Group included Liz Schnackenberg, of the U.S. Forest Service; Kelley Heaney representing industry (she has since become Water Resources Manager for the city of Steamboat Springs); Kevin McBride, manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District; city of Steamboat engineer Ben Beall; Geoff Blakeslee, of the Nature Conservancy representing recreation; and Brian Hodge, of Trout Unlimited. Lyn Halliday, of Environmental Solutions Unlimited LLC, played an a major role in the creation of the Watershed Plan.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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