Water release allows Yampa River to reopen to recreation, with restrictions | SteamboatToday.com

Water release allows Yampa River to reopen to recreation, with restrictions

Darren Halik helps Peter Van De Carr stack tubes at Back Door Sports in downtown Steamboat Springs Friday afternoon. The local business, which rents tubes to locals and visitors to float down the Yampa, is hoping for a late-summer rush after the city announced that it would reopen the Yampa River to recreational use on Friday. The river has been closed since July 9.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:45 p.m.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — An 80-mile section of the Yampa River is getting a much-needed boost this week as water is released from Stagecoach Reservoir to meet the demands of the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association's Craig Station.

"During times of drought, it's critical to have water storage in the Yampa River basin," said Lee Boughey, senior manager of communications and public affairs at Tri-State. "Working with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Colorado Water Trust, we can ensure our power generation continues while bolstering water flows and the health of the Yampa."

The release, combined with lower daytime and nighttime temperatures in the Yampa Valley, means a return of fishing, tubing and other recreational opportunities on city-owned lands and the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area.

"Based on this and a favorable forecast, we are opening the river for commercial and public use of city-owned portions of the river," said Craig Robinson, the city’s parks, open space and trails manager.

The Upper Yampa River Conservancy District began releasing water Thursday from Stagecoach. The release is the Upper Yampa's largest release to date and includes up to 70 cubic feet per second of water from Tri-State's leased water pool. The Colorado Water Trust will also continue releasing water to support the health of the Yampa.

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"What I should probably say first is a thank you to the commercial operators, and thank you to the residents of Steamboat Springs in respecting these closures. I think it has been very beneficial for the river, and these are not easy decisions to make," said Gary Suiter, Steamboat Springs city manager. "But in the end, the health of the Yampa River is one of the highest community priorities, and we appreciate everyone's cooperation."

While the increased flow will improve the health of the river, Mike Porras, public information officer with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said those benefits will not come overnight. He said the fish have been under tremendous strain due to drought conditions, lower flows, higher temperatures and lower levels of dissolved oxygen.

"More water in the rivers is always welcome, but we have a long ways to go," Porras said. "The public really needs to understand just because there is a little more water in the river now does not mean that things have completely recovered."

Because of that, CPW is asking fishermen to respect the voluntary angling closure from 2 p.m. to midnight each day. Fishing is open, but Porras is encouraging anglers to seek other opportunities at higher elevations where water temperatures have been cooler.

For commercial tubing operators like Peter Van De Carr, the reopening of the river to recreational use was welcome news in what has been a frustrating year.

"It means that I can get something in," Van De Carr said Friday. "It has been a brutal year."

Van De Carr's Backdoor Sports is one of several commercial tubing operations that rely on the busy summer to make money. That business has been on standby for more than a month after the river was closed July 9.

"We missed the big time of the season by a long shot," Van De Carr said. "It's just frustrating, because I have a crew of 15 people that would love to come back to work … I have been driving Ubers the past three weeks."

Van De Carr feels like most of his employees will be back for the final stretch of the season, but there is no question that the long layoff has been challenging. He said, at times, the river has surpassed the criteria to reopen, but it did not.

"There are some of those intangibles where you have to make a judgment call," Suiter said. "I had two directives to staff. One was listen to the scientists and the scientific data and the other was let’s not do a yo-yo effect of opening and closing or opening in the morning and closing in the afternoon. I think if you do that the public loses track and the closures become ineffective."

Suiter said he is sympathetic to the commercial operators’ frustration.

"It was difficult because we had a small stretch in there where the criteria was met, but we looked ahead and we have five days or seven days of nothing but heat and sunshine in the upper 80s or low 90s, and that doesn't look good,” Suiter explained. “So you had to throw that into the formula as well. So with the cooler temperatures later in the season and meeting the criteria, I think the indicators are good, for now."

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.