Yampa River Fund launches this week, aims to keep the river flowing from the Flat Tops to Dinosaur | SteamboatToday.com

Yampa River Fund launches this week, aims to keep the river flowing from the Flat Tops to Dinosaur

Yampa River Fund launches this week with a party on Thursday

Echo Park, located in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument, is near where the Yampa River merges into the Green River.
Austin Colbert

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Raise your glass to the Yampa River.

On Thursday, Sept. 19, community members will celebrate the launch of the Yampa River Fund, an endowed fund that will be used to fund projects to improve river health, protect the water supply and boost river flow in dry years.

At 4:30 p.m., community members will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony over the Yampa River Core Trail Bridge near the Steamboat Springs Ambulance/Search and Rescue Barn.

“There’s going to be sort of a more formal ribbon cutting and an opportunity for people to give remarks,” said Nancy Smith, external affairs director for The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program, though she implied there might be some on-river shenanigans during the ceremony. “Then we’ll head over to Mountain Tap (Brewery), and it’ll be really celebratory. There will be food and drinks and music and some fun giveaways.”

People will have the opportunity to donate to the fund at the event or by giving online at yampariverfund.org.

“We have secured over $2 million to kick off the endowment,” Smith said.

Ultimately, it’s the goal of organizers to raise $4.75 million for the endowment over the next five years, which would generate enough interest income for over $200,000 in project grants every year.

The fund aims to address three areas of action, Smith said:  

  • Leasing water to boost river flow in dry years
  • Restoration actions
  • Water infrastructure improvements

These projects aim to benefit everybody who uses the Yampa River and its tributaries, from rafters to ranchers to folks who want clean water coming out of their kitchen tap. 

“I think this is a key aspect at the heart of the water fund — the idea is to fund projects that benefit all water users,” Smith said. “Nature, recreation and agricultural and industrial. The water fund definitely would never fund a project that just benefited, say, an industrial water diverter.”

If you go

What: Yampa River Fund Launch Party
When: Ribbon cutting at 4:30 p.m. Thursday with celebrations at Mountain Tap Brewery afterward
Where: Yampa River Core Trail Bridge at 911 Yampa St. and Mountain Tap, 910 Yampa St.

Food and drinks will be served. The event will feature door prizes and live music from JR Adams & Friends. If you can’t make the event, you can donate anytime at yampariverfund.org.

The fund will help pay for water projects in the entire Yampa Valley, from the Flat Tops and Mount Zirkel wilderness areas, all the way to Dinosaur National Monument. About 20 organizations, including local governments in Routt and Moffat counties, conservation and water districts, companies and environmental and agricultural organizations, have signed on to help govern the fund.

“It’s continuing this trend of the entire basin working together,” said Jackie Brown, chair of the Yampa, White and Green River Basin Roundtable and a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “It’s not Routt County’s project. It’s not Moffat County’s project.”

She said the fund will not only bring dollars to water projects in the valley, but expertise from both a Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Yampa staff member available to help guide water fund projects.

“The leverage we’ll be able to get by using that money and that staff time —  I think we’ll get projects done faster,” she said. “I think we’ll get more projects done. I think we’ll have more people willing to jump in and do projects because there’s an existing source of money.”

Why create the fund?

In creating the Yampa River Fund, water managers said they’re planning for the future of the Yampa Valley and its river system.

As Colorado sees more and more hot, dry years, that has impacts on the Yampa and the Colorado River, which it flows into.

Northwest Colorado is experiencing an earlier snowmelt and more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, both of these contribute to an early peak flow on the river, which leaves less water in the river later in the summer when ranchers are irrigating hay meadows and watering livestock. Researchers at Colorado State University also have found that unlike previous droughts in the 1950s, which were instigated by slight precipitation, warmer-than-average temperatures and not precipitation, drove Colorado’s most recent decade-long drought.

That got water managers and some water users thinking about shortages and the possibility that use of Yampa River water might be limited under a Colorado River Compact Call, which would require Colorado use less water in order to send it to states downstream, including Arizona, California, Nevada and parts of Utah and New Mexico.

“Most simply stated, the community in the Yampa Valley has done so much work to identify the kind of future it wants to have for the river,” Smith said. 

The Yampa River Fund specifically directs its money to goals included in several Northwest Colorado river management plans, including those created by the Yampa, White and Green River Basin Roundtable, the city of Steamboat Springs and Colorado’s Endangered Fish Recovery Program. These goals include protecting water users on the Yampa from curtailment, finding ways to address water shortages and keeping water infrastructure up to date.

Another factor that instigated the water fund are the reservoir releases that are becoming a regular occurrence to increase river flow in dry years.

Those releases come at a cost, said Kent Vertrees, president of Friends of the Yampa. In the past, the Colorado Water Trust and other entities have fundraised to pay for those releases.

“Who’s going to pay for that in the future?” he asked. “This endowment was originally thought of as a way to help pay for that.”

Vertrees said the endowment could help alleviate donor fatigue. Interest earned on the endowed fund will create an annual return that will be used to fund projects.  

How will the money be granted?

The Yampa River Fund board of directors will be made up of about 20 people with interests in all kinds of water use. A smaller steering committee within the board will review proposals and make funding decisions.

Projects will be reviewed twice a year, Smith said. An early year cycle will focus on leasing water in dry years and a second cycle later in the year will target other types of projects.

Smith said the Nature Conservancy intends to hold the fund at the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.

What kind of projects could be funded?

“The highest priority activities are to make sure that we can lease water to bolster river levels in dry years, and the ‘in dry years’ is an important part of it,” Smith said.

These could include leases out of Stagecoach Reservoir to boost river flow through Steamboat or releasing water out of Elkhead Reservoir to support endangered fish habitat in the lower Yampa River, Smith said. In wet or average water years, releasing water have priority, she added.

Restoration projects could include planting native trees to shade and cool down the upper Yampa River. In the lower Yampa, restoration could include removal of invasive species, such as leafy spurge, and work within the river’s channel, where years of dry summers have led water users to push up gravel dams to ensure they have enough water flowing into irrigation ditches. She said negative impacts to the river from these dams can be mitigated while still allowing ranchers to get the water they need.

Infrastructure projects could include upgrading the diversion structures used by ranchers, cities and businesses.

“This project, the river fund, is looking at ‘how do we find projects that are beneficial?’ and I think that taps into some of those core values of our ag producers,” said Michele Meyer, executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance.“They care about the river. They care about the environment. They own this land. They want to see the river stay healthy for 100 more generations down the road.”

She said she sees those values in other water users, too.

“We all have that same core value that we want to take care of this river and see it remain healthy,” she said. “That’s going to make this be successful.”

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @elHasenbeck.


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