Yampa River closure looms due to high water temperatures

Temperatures came within a degree of closure Monday, avoiding a commercial and voluntary closure until at least Thursday.

Tubers head down the Yampa River early Monday afternoon, but rising water temperatures may make sights like this rare as the summer progresses. If water temperatures exceed 75 degrees for two days in a row, commercial tubing operations will be shut down, and a voluntary closure would ask all river users to stay out of the water. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Outfitters on the Yampa River have expected this summer to be one of the shorter seasons in recent memory, and it looked like it wasn’t even going to make it to the Fourth of July.

“We were given the grace of a rainstorm last Saturday; the trajectory was to be closed (June 27),” said Pete Van De Carr, owner of Backdoor Sports in Steamboat. “That rainstorm was a divine intervention.”

That rain boosted the Yampa River’s flows back up above 200 cubic feet per second after it had been flirting with a drop below 100 cfs. It turned out to be a successful weekend for Van De Carr, as the river was packed with people renting tubes.

When the shop opened Monday morning, dozens were lined up to get on the river, some shut out Sunday, because it was so busy. With the river temperature rising to 75.5 degrees at 3:45 p.m. Sunday, those tubers may be some of the last to rent tubes this season.

River water temperatures exceeding 75 degrees on two consecutive days is one of three metrics that could trigger a closure of the river through town, but the river peaked at 74.3 degrees at 4 p.m. Monday, staving off a closure for now.

“The Yampa River water temperature is still high, and flows are dropping, but we did not meet the recreational closure criteria today,” said Jenny Carey, Steamboat Springs open space and trails supervisor in an email Monday night.

In response to the river remaining open, Van De Carr replied to Carey’s email saying he thought keeping the river open, even for just another few days, was a big mistake.

“Keeping the river open, at this point, is harmful for all of us,” Van De Carr wrote, adding that the other outfitters he has talked to agree the river should be closed. “Squeezing another day or two is not worth the good will we will gain by realizing a severely deteriorating river and making the public aware that our interests are first and foremost the health of the river.”

The city was prepared to issue a commercial and voluntary closure of the river as soon as Tuesday morning, but after peaking below 75 degrees Monday, the soonest the river could close because of high temperature is Thursday morning.

“It will reset tomorrow,” said Billy Atkinson, area aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “If it hits 75 (Tuesday) and then again on Wednesday, the river will close on Thursday.”

When enacted, a closure would suspend commercial activity, like renting tubes and guided fishing on the river, through town completely. The closure also asks all river users — tubers, paddle boarders, anglers and swimmers — to stay out of the river.

A closure could also be triggered if flows were to drop below 85 cfs or if the oxygen level in the water were to drop below 6 milligrams per liter. All three metrics are connected, as lower flows often lead to warmer water, which leads to less oxygen in the water.

Atkinson already closed part of the Yampa River to fishing this year. The tailwaters below Stagecoach Reservoir were closed in late May to all fishing, because of low flows both in and out of the reservoir, and Atkinson said it is hard to say if it will reopen this summer.

For CPW to close a river, there just needs to be flows less than 50% of the average. Atkinson said that would allow him to close places like Chuck Lewis State Wildlife area to the south of Steamboat now, but it is better to coordinate with the city to avoid confusion.

“We’ve been below average and well below 50% of average pretty much all spring,” Atkinson said. “Our criteria allows us flexibility at a statewide level. Because of the city’s management plan, we like to stay consistent with that.”

If the city were to enact a closure, Atkinson said CPW would enact a voluntary closure at Chuck Lewis for fishing as well.

The closure is not necessarily required to last all summer, as Atkinson said a series of monsoon rains could turn around all three metrics pretty quickly. Still, he said he would want to ensure conditions improved for an extended period of time before he would consider opening it back up.

“What we don’t want to do is ever get into an on-again, off-again situation,” Atkinson said. “We want to take all factors into account and make sure that the flows are going to sustain.”

While fishing is allowed, Atkinson suggested anglers fish in the morning before 11 a.m. when water is still cooler. When flows are low, fish will congregate in deeper pools of water that are cooler and don’t require them to expend as much energy fighting the current.

Atkinson said he is already seeing this in places like the Fish Creek hole, where the water is cooler as the creek enters the Yampa. This makes fish easier to target while fishing, and with less places to feed, there is more competition for food, Atkinson said.

“Fish typically will just shut down,” Atkinson said. “They are not actively feeding, they are not swimming around much, they are kind of just pumping water over their gills to stay alive.”

Steamboat Pilot & Today Journalist Alison Berg contributed to this report.

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