Yampa River Cleanup flows on despite COVID-19

Karen Wogsland adds a bag of trash to the pile collected on Saturday during the annual Yampa River Cleanup. Volunteers said they noticed less litter than in previous years, which might have been due to additional cleanup efforts earlier in the summer.
Derek Maiolo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Seven-hundred-twenty-eight cigarette butts. Seven-hundred-nineteen pieces of plastic. Two-hundred-forty-five shards of broken glass. 

Those were among the most common items collected during the 2020 Yampa River Cleanup on Saturday. The annual event had to make some changes this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it still managed to galvanize a local task force to remove harmful debris from the treasured river that flows through the heart of Steamboat Springs.

To keep people safe, Friends of the Yampa and the city of Steamboat collaborated to turn the cleanup into a virtual event. Volunteers registered online, signing up as a household or small group to tackle a specific section of the river. Organizers handed out trash bags, gloves and face coverings.

With 82 volunteers, participation was about on par with previous years, according to Emily Hines, the city’s marketing and special events coordinator who helped to organize the cleanup. Additional volunteers cleaned sections of the river in Hayden and Craig.

A group of 20 people collected 420 pounds of trash from three sections of the Yampa River near Craig, according to Robert Schenck with Northwest Colorado Parrotheads.

The inventory of litter represents just a fraction of what people collected. While not weighed, the trash from Steamboat almost filled an entire dumpster, Hines said.

Volunteers at all locations noted picking up less litter than in previous years. Friends of the Yampa President Kent Vertrees attributes the cleaner conditions to individual endeavors prior to the weekend cleanup. Backdoor Sports in downtown Steamboat organized its own effort a couple of weeks ago, and people in search of volunteer hours have approached Vertrees to conduct their own river cleanup projects.

He also believes people are getting better about picking up after themselves while on the river.

“That’s a good sign. We’re happy that’s going on,” Vertrees said.

But littering continues to be a major problem on and off the river, he added. While local waterways are resilient and can recover from a certain degree of disturbance, garbage is one thing a river cannot clean on its own.

No matter how many signs or environmental campaigns tell people not to trash ecosystems, it appears the message has not reached everyone. As tipsy tubers float down rapids and bystanders smoke or eat beside the water, they leave empty beer cans and cigarette butts, among other slovenly scraps. in their wake.

Considering some of the challenges COVID-19 posed to this year’s cleanup, Vertrees was happy to see such a good turnout.

As he put it, “The use of the river didn’t stop at all with the pandemic.”

If anything, the lack of other activities around Steamboat due to COVID-19 restrictions might have ushered even larger numbers of people to the river. Volunteers found more than 100 face masks strewn along the Steamboat portion of the river, a byproduct of public health measures.

Other interesting items collected during the cleanup include a rusty chair from a restaurant, a vehicle battery and a pregnancy test — the result is unknown.

It was heartening for Vertrees to see families who have made a tradition out of participating in the annual cleanup not let the changes this year stop them from volunteering. Some tourists also signed up.

Kristen Stanford holds up a pair of muddy underwear while her husband, Mark, logs the trash they collected during Saturday’s Yampa River Cleanup.
Derek Maiolo

Novella Light celebrated her fourth year volunteering at the cleanup with her mother Erin, an engineer Colorado Division of Water Resources.

“I love it. It’s so fun,” Novella said.

Her excitement might have been fueled by the $30 in cash she found in her search for trash. In true stewardship spirit, she and her mother donated the money to Friends of the Yampa.

They were not the only volunteers to discover some lost dollars Saturday. As Hines recounted, a wallet that turned up during the cleanup had the owner’s number inside. The man who answered the phone was from Missouri and had lost his wallet while fishing near Rotary Park back in July, Hines said.

Friends of the Yampa received another surprise donation after the man offered the $40 left inside his wallet as thanks.

Support for the river cleanup and river conservation in general are important to maintain the health of essential waterways but having to pick up after others underscores the need for better stewardship among the general population.

As local Mark Stanford said after dropping off several trash bags full of the day’s haul, including a muddy pair of men’s underwear, “It’s sad to see the impact we have on our river.”

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.