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Yampa River flow has business owners concerned

Peter Van De Carr, the owner of Backdoor Sports, is hoping for a wet spring to help improve the flow of the Yampa River, which supports his business. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — On Monday morning, Peter Van De Carr stood outside of Backdoor Sports watching the slow-moving waters of the Yampa River flow past his business in Steamboat Springs.

“You got to kind of be optimistic,” said Van De Carr, who makes his living renting tubes to visitors and selling river and ski gear. “The reality is that every year, last year included, we simultaneously prepare for disaster where we might have no business at all, or we prepare to be crazy busy, which was last year.”

Entrepreneurs, like Van De Carr, who rely on the waters of the Yampa River, are holding out hope a wet, cool spring will keep their businesses afloat this summer.



Despite his outward enthusiasm, Van De Carr admits he is preparing for the worst as he looks over SNOTEL data collected by the National Resource Conservation Service that shows snowpack in the Yampa and White river basins is about 80% of normal.

“You know if things turned around, and we started getting wetter than average kind of system coming in, it might turn around, “ Van De Carr said. ”We should be seeing rafts and kayaks, but it’s not worth going right now.”



Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, agrees the river flow is eye opening for this time of year.

“I’m surprised at how low the river is right now,” Romero-Heaney said. “I think it’s an indication that there is not a lot of snow remaining in the valley, because it melted off so quickly. I believe it got soaked up by the ground, because the soil was already so dry after last year.”

The Yampa River normally sees a surge as the snow melts in the lower valleys and fills the river. However, drought conditions last fall combined with less snowpack in the lower areas has reduced the flow of the river this spring. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Van De Carr, who has owned Backdoor Sports for more than 30 years, said most years, the Yampa River peaks twice. First, when the snow in the lower valley melts fueling the Yampa’s spring flow and then again as the snow from the higher peaks melts and makes its way into the river below.

“We usually have this valley runoff surge, and the river will come up to 1,000 CFS (cubic feet per second). Then it’ll start going down, and everybody thinks its peaked,” Van De Carr said. “It does not peak until there’s almost no snow left on Mount Werner.”

But this year, that valley surge wasn’t as strong, and like Romero-Heaney, Van De Carr believes most of that moisture soaked into the dry ground before reaching the river.

The early-season flow in the Yampa River has many business owners in Steamboat Springs concerned about this summer and possible drought conditions. (Photo by John F. Russell)

“I’m not a hydrologist, but I think the water table is so low that all this stuff is just being sucked up and replenishing the groundwater,” Van De Carr said.

Unfortunately, for Backdoor Sports and many other businesses that rely on the river to generate cash flow the outlook for this summer is challenging.

“There’s not a ton we can do about it on the business side, except for just know that the river is not going to be an amenity that we’re encouraging people to use,” said Peter Hall, who owns Hala GearSpace and CKS Online. “On the business side, it’s just hoping for the best and maybe a rainy spring. The broader concern is just that there’s less and less snow that makes it through the winter at lower elevations near town, and so the hydrograph is just changing — or at least it seems we are having more seasons where it’s atypical.”

Hall said not having the river will hurt traffic on Yampa Street and his retail business, which rents paddleboards and gear.

“The last time the river closed, Yampa Street just didn’t have anybody on it, and when the river is open, it has everybody on it,” Hall said. “We’ll see rentals and people go to high mountain lakes and find places to go paddle and enjoy water, but it just will not be out on the river.”

Johnny Spillane, owner of Steamboat Flyfisher, said while the snowpack is important, the most vital thing for his business is getting moisture in the spring and summer.

“For us, it’s more important that we get springtime and summertime rain than it is to have that winter snowpack,” Spillane said. “You know one way or the other, the snow is going to be gone, so for us, getting those monsoonal rains is incredibly important, Obviously, we’re going to keep the health of the fish in mind and want to make sure water temps are good, and that’s what those help with.”

Hall is also hoping the Yampa River Fund, which has been used in the past to purchase stored water, will be used to bring water into the Yampa later in the season if the valley doesn’t see wet, cool spring weather.

Van De Carr said he has experienced these kind of conditions in the past, and said it’s important to have a backup plan.

“I’m going to drive Ubers — that is what I did three years ago,” Van De Carr said. “I kind of liked the job. You don’t really make any money — it pays like $8 an hour — but it’s better than sitting here and doing nothing, which is what I’ll end up doing.”


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