Water quality study targets 11 tributaries to become ‘Outstanding Waters’
To study 11 tributaries on U.S. Forest Service land in the Yampa River basin, organizers and volunteers are traveling four seasons per year by snowmobile, ATV, raft, four-wheel drive, mountain bike or on foot to test stream water quality.
The goal is to collect water quality samples and data so that the tributaries can be considered for the Outstanding Waters designation program that helps to safeguard water quality.
Jenny Frithsen, environmental program manager at nonprofit Friends of the Yampa, is leading the local Outstanding Waters two-year study and application process to determine if the candidate tributaries on Forest Service land qualify for the water quality protection program. The 11 streams are located in four general areas across northern Routt County and in Steamboat Springs, including Elkhead and First creeks in the west California Park area, middle fork of the Little Snake River north of Columbine, four tributaries that feed into the Elk River east of Clark, and Fish, Walton and Soda creeks near Steamboat.
Friends of the Yampa staff are working with the Colorado River Basin Outstanding Waters Coalition formed in summer 2022 to identify and try to protect “clean water” across the state and to designate more headwater streams as outstanding waters deemed worthy of increased protections by Colorado. Frithsen said similar studies are underway in the region, for example, in the Roaring Fork and Eagle River watersheds.
“Outstanding Waters is a designation awarded to reaches of streams, rivers or other bodies of water with high water quality and exceptional recreational or ecological significance,” according to the Outstanding Waters program.
The intent of the designation is to preserve the high quality of the designated reaches for future generations to protect upstream waters from long-term degradation and deterioration of existing water conditions. Protecting clean water is important for drinking water for communities, habitat for fish and wildlife, farming and ranching, recreation and the long-term economic development of towns, according to Outstanding Waters.
The water quality sampling at 13 different sites in the Yampa River basin started in summer 2022 and will be completed in spring 2024 with a decision on the designations in summer 2024, Frithsen said.
The designation would not impact irrigation water rights that are based on water quantity but would serve as an added layer of protection from dangers to water quality from point-source pollution such as wastewater treatment plant discharge or runoff or discharges from mining. Outstanding Waters is the highest level of anti-degradation protection under the federal Clean Water Act, Frithsen said.
The designation prevents new or increased sources of pollution, but preexisting uses such as grazing and recreation can continue at current levels as long as pollution is not increased.
The Outstanding Waters designation is awarded through the Water Quality Control Commission of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. For a stream or part of a stream to qualify, the water must meet specific quality criteria gathered across 12 key parameters such as dissolved oxygen, pH, E. coli bacteria levels, nutrients, metals and water temperature. Partners on the local project include The Pew Charitable Trusts and two nonprofits, American Rivers and Mountain Studies Institute in Durango.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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