Yampa River is wild, especially from the air | SteamboatToday.com

Yampa River is wild, especially from the air

"The Yampa is the wildest river in the upper Colorado River Basin and that matters!" Friends of the Yampa's Kent Vertrees proclaimed before a packed house at the Chief Theater June 1. 

The audience had gathered to hear from some of the foremost water experts in the region, along with representatives of the nonprofit Friends of the Yampa on the eve of Steamboat Springs' annual Yampa River Fest. 

Two days later, audience members witnessed just how "wild" the Yampa River can be right in downtown Steamboat, as daring rafters challenged the handmade rapid known as Charlie's Hole. In early June, as the river reaches its peak runoff, Charlie's Hole generates a standing wave originally designed to be surfed by expert kayakers.

Things get really wild during river fest, as teams of rafters, using only paddles instead of powerful oars, sneak up on Charlie's Hole in its powerful eddies and, with several quick thrusts of their paddles, charge sideways. Many are spit out like a rotten cherry tomato, others find a groove in the wave and survive for 15 to 20 seconds before their watercraft are launched into the air, and the paddlers take a swim in the frigid water.

One band of rafters entered the rapid with one raft stacked on top of a larger raft and passengers in both. The resulting carnage was predictable.

Of course, the concept of a wild river has different connotations. Vertrees' proclamation at the Chief that the Yampa is wild was based on the river's status as the last major river in the upper Colorado Basin whose flows have not been detrimentally interrupted by storage dams.

In the parlance of conservationists, the Yampa is "wild" because it is widely regarded as having the fewest dams impeding its flows of any major river in the American Southwest. The profound implication is that the many species of animals and plants that have evolved over the millennia around the river's annual rise and fall continue to thrive in the Yampa.

University professor, author and former whitewater outfitter Patrick Tierney has written that in spite of a handful of small dams on the Yampa's headwaters and also on several tributaries, the river maintains the characteristics of a wild river over the course of almost 250 miles.

"These enduring characteristics make the Yampa a benchmark by which other rivers can be compared and well illustrates the threats facing rivers throughout the West in a period of climate change and rapid population growth," Tierney wrote in the 2015 book, "Colorado's Yampa River," which he collaborated on with the noted nature photographer John Fielder.

Yampa is a high-yield drainage

Eric Kuhn, who will step down as manager of the Colorado River District next year after 36 years, told his audience at the Chief this month the perception that water from rivers on Colorado's Western Slope is being diverted across the Continental Divide to support a booming population on the Front Range is somewhat misleading. 

"The reason we have trans-mountain diversions isn't for people, it's for their lawns," Kuhn said. "The Yampa can support a hell of a lot of people."

The Colorado River drains seven states and produces 15 to 16 million acre feet of water, and the Yampa, which averages 1.62 million AF annually, represents about 10 percent of the total, Kuhn said.

The Yampa and the Green are typically on close footing, with the Yampa contributing about 45 percent of its combined flow below the confluence, and the Green, about 55 percent. But it's a different story this year, and one that demonstrates how drastically snowfall can vary from mountain range to mountain range. 

While the Yampa Basin saw subpar snowpack in the winter of 2016-2017, the upper Green, including the Teton and Wind River ranges, experienced 230 percent of average snowpack. 

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"It really hit Jackson Hole, the Wind Rivers and northern slopes of the Uintah Mountains (in Utah)," Kuhn said. "It shows that just a matter of 100 to 200 miles can make the difference between moderately dry (conditions) and potential record runoff." 

The snowmelt that pours off the Gore and Park ranges every spring in creeks called Morrison, Sarvis, Green, Harrison, Priest and Walton upstream from Steamboat, transforms what is basically a mountain stream along its first 25 miles into a significant river. But it's the Elk River, which flows into the Yampa 8 miles west of Steamboat, that doubles the flow of the river with another load of Park Range snowpack.

"The Yampa is made by the Park Range," Upper Yampa Water Conservancy Manager Kevin McBride said. "That's where the deep stuff is — Walton Creek is the highest yielding basin per acre in the entire state of Colorado. The Yampa is wild!"

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

Yampa River Fest speakers

• Upper Yampa River Conservancy Manager Kevin McBride: Among the great rivers of the West, the Yampa has some of the least storage for human consumption of any other. And there’s room to create more storage in his agency’s region near the headwaters and still preserve the wild qualities of the Yampa.

• Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan: He said Ben Beall has taken a leadership role as a volunteer in the struggle to prevent the noxious and incredibly resilient weed known as leafy spurge from taking over the grassy banks of the Yampa River in West Routt.

• Tom Chart, director of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program: The Yampa River plays a major role in his agency’s efforts to re-build populations of the endangered  pike minnow, razorback sucker, humpback chubs and bonytail sucker. The goal is to keep population levels within federal target zones, and a new $1.3 million barrier net at the spillway on Elkhead Reservoir near Craig will aid that mission by keeping predatory, non-native fish like smallmouth bass out of the river.

Aerial views change perceptions

One of the most profound experiences provided by the Friends of the Yampa during River Fest is one that only a handful of people get to experience. Thanks to Friends of the Yampa, working with the conservation organization LightHawk Conservation Flying, a handful of people have the opportunity each year to broaden their understanding of the river system in its entirety from the unique perspective offered by a small airplane. On June 4, I became one of those lucky few.

Friends of the Yampa board member Kent Vertrees knows the Yampa intimately, and one of the things he understands is that it’s difficult to appreciate the entirety of the Yampa River basin from a raft in the churning chaos of Warm Springs Rapid, or even from the rim of Yampa Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument. In order to fully grasp the geography of the river that contributes 10 percent of the total flow of the mighty Colorado, one has  find an airplane pilot who knows how to fly low, and slow over the full length of the river from its headwaters above 12,000 feet in the Flat Tops.

LightHawk, with 200 volunteer pilots (among them Steamboat’s own Jack Dysart) funds flights that transport environmentalists, photographers and storytellers aloft to see natural phenomena ranging from migrating whales to the embattled Everglades to rivers polluted by mine runoff, to get a different perspective on their significance.

The hope is that the experience will help LightHawk passengers to foster dialogue, build consensus and promote informed decision-making.

During a June 4 flight in Dysart’s turbocharged Cessna, and a second plane flown by Rick Durden of Denver, we were able to see all of the meandering tributaries pouring into the main stem of the Yampa and appreciate their contributions.

It’s from a vantage point of 1,200 feet above the river that a person can watch the landscape changing from wet Alpine meadows, to the striated rocky escarpments of West Routt, followed. The progressive changes go from the flat-water stretches, where the river flows placidly through the big cottonwood galleries of eastern Moffat County on its way to the juniper studded hills of western Moffat.

A light plane allowed us to see how incredibly rugged the sandstone formations on the north rim of Yampa Canyon are.  We saw the giant stream of water emitting from Flaming Gorge dam on the Green River, where water managers are pressed to keep up with near record snowmelt. And we marveled at how sinuous the  meanders on the Yampa upstream from Stagecoach Reservoir are.

The enduring impression is that the Yampa is a precious resource that binds several diverse ecosystems together.