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Steamboat Magazine

Giving the River Some Love

09/02/2021 11:54AM ● By Eugene Buchanan

Charles Smith fishes the Yampa River at sunset. Photo by Noah Wetzel.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Even if Northwest Colorado weren’t dealing with its current drought, nothing would be more precious in the West than water. And here in Steamboat Springs, the health of our local Yampa River ties into that of local wildlife, plant life, recreation and agriculture.

Luckily, the cavalry is on the way to help in the form of the Integrated Water Management Plan for the Yampa, spearheaded by the local Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable. Instead of circling the wagons, the group is circling the river’s many stakeholders together to create a plan for the river’s future.

The years-long process will combine community input with science and engineering assessments to identify actions to protect existing and future water uses and to support a healthy river ecosystem. It’s being implemented in the face of growing populations, changing land uses and, as a look out your window attests, climate uncertainty.

“The Yampa River Basin has a lot of changes coming its way,” says project leader Nicole Seltzer of the River Network. “We want to plan appropriately to protect existing usages from water shortages in the future while also promoting the river’s health. We’re looking for win-win projects from South Routt all the way to Dinosaur.”

River enthusiasts and agriculture are intertwined in Steamboat Springs. Photo by Noah Wetzel.

It’s a community-wide effort, led by locals who care about the river and its future. As part of it, the IWMP team is holding conversations with local water users to supplement science and engineering data to create recommendations for projects to implement moving forward. With a committee of volunteers experienced in everything from water management and agriculture to fisheries and recreation, the plan will identify projects and strategies that benefit all these constituents. Seltzer says they’ve spent a year so far talking to more than 150 stakeholders in the basin, listening to their concerns and ideas.

“We’re narrowing it down into some key focus areas, looking for system-wide solutions that help irrigation, improve the riparian corridor, alleviate land lost to erosion, and enhance recreational opportunities,” Seltzer says. “These multi-benefit efforts require a collaboration amongst water users and landowners, local nonprofits and local government.”

Citing a study showing a 37% decline in late-season flows in the Yampa over the past 40 years, the project is also looking at protecting the river’s precious water. “We’re seeing drier dries,” Seltzer says. “If we want to have a healthy river and enough water for late-season irrigation, we need to do something.”

Focusing on four segments of the river – the Upper, Middle and Lower mainstems of the Yampa, as well as the Elk River – so far, the plan has zeroed-in on improving agriculture infrastructure, protecting flows and improving riparian habitat as priorities. The team has already completed its irrigation and recreation assessments. “We’ve heard a lot of concerns about river channel movement, as well as fish and boater passage barriers,” she says. “We’re looking at solutions so we can understand how to improve these items moving forward.”

Spectators and participants converge at the C-Hole at the Yampa River Festival, Friends of the Yampa's signature event to raise awareness about the Yampa River. Photo by Jeff Hall.

So far, the river’s many stakeholders are pleased with the plan’s progress.

“The Integrated Water Management Plan is critical in working to identify water-related projects that not only benefit agriculture but overall river health,” says Michele Meyer, executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance. “As our environment becomes warmer and drier, there are significant impacts to all water users and the broader community. Providing outreach and connections to agriculture is key to understanding local river issues and developing coordinated solutions – and improving irrigation also supports a healthy river for recreation, fish, riparian habitat and municipal use.”

Even entities as national as The Nature Conservancy are onboard with the project. “It sets the path forward to prioritize future water projects for the health of the river,” says Andy Baur, manager of the recently created Yampa River Fund, an endowment that awards grants to improve the river’s health. “We’re proud to support any and all of the projects that get outlined in the plan.”

This broad-based support is also proving beneficial to securing the funding needed to implement these solutions. “We’re creating shared goals amongst all the basin’s different river users, which resonates with donors,” says Seltzer, adding that more than $1 million in new funding has already come in to help fund local water projects, including grants from the Walton Family Foundation, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Bureau of Reclamation, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy.

The key, everyone agrees, is that what’s good for Peter is also good for Paul.

“It’s the best way forward to identify and prioritize projects that help more than one user, and then rank what that prioritization should be,” says Lindsey Marlow, executive director of the local nonprofit Friends of the Yampa, who spearheaded the environmental and recreation stakeholder engagement. “The river has a lot of different stakeholders, and this lets every voice be heard.”

A kayaker in mid-flip at the Yampa River Festival. Perhaps more than any other recreational user group, kayakers depend on a healthy stream flow. Photo by Jeff Hall.


Marlow says there have been a lot of obvious suggestions, like improving the Maybell Diversion Ditch and bridge pilons during high water, as well as some not-so-obvious suggestions. “From a recreation standpoint, the biggest thing we heard was more access—and having a place to get out and relax from time to time while floating,” she says.

When it comes to flows, she says, most people just want them at a certain time of the year. Everyone, from ranchers to recreationists, has also been super supportive of local agriculture concerns. “They realize it’s the identity of this area,” she says.

“Ag producers will benefit from the plan by being educated on the need to keep good records and accurately report water usage to protect their water rights,” says Marsha Daughenbaugh of the Rocking C Bar Ranch, who also serves on the board of the Colorado Water Trust. “It will increase the tools available for them to collaboratively fund, install and maintain diversion infrastructures, and it’s providing conduits between the Yampa White Green Roundtable and irrigators to help us all betterunderstand the challenges of our water use.”

When it comes to water, everyone is truly in the same proverbial boat. “One thing that’s come out of it is the bringing together of people,” says Seltzer, adding that more than 50 people attend the group’s meetings. “Everyone is interested in the health of the river as well as the plan. These conversations are important and we’re charting a path forward – the result will be a ranked list of issues that stake holders want to tackle, and the plans and funding options to implement them.”

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