Steamboat Springs — When flows on the Yampa River dropped below 85 cubic feet per second this summer, tubing stopped. If flyfishers seemed absent on the stretch of the river through Steamboat, it was because of a voluntary ban that was only lifted Sept. 1.
“I was simultaneously preparing for success and disaster,” Pete Van De Carr said about his tubing business at Backdoor Sports.
The drought conditions that plagued Northwest Colorado and large parts of the nation put businesses, recreation and the health of the river in peril. The Colorado Water Trust’s lease of 4,000 acre-feet of water from Stagecoach Reservoir was the first-ever use of a 2003 state law that allows temporary leases of water to protect rivers threatened by low water years. That lease put 26 cfs into the Yampa for a large part of summer, salvaging some recreational use and bolstering the health of the river.
While noting there were other factors that the led to the rebound of the Yampa in July, Van De Carr said the Colorado Water Trust’s release “benefitted any person who lives in or visits this town this summer.”
John Duty, of Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, which runs tubing and rafting trips in addition to guided fishing trips, said the release was a great experiment.
“Obviously, having a trickle coming through town isn’t good for the fish or the tourists,” Duty said.
The last time a drought so seriously threatened Northwest Colorado was in 2002, a year that was partly the impetus for the 2003 law allowing temporary leases.
In 2002, Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife fisheries biologist Billy Atkinson said, the low flows led to the growth of vegetation that resulted in drastic shifts in the dissolved oxygen levels in the Yampa River. Large mats of vegetation consumed oxygen during the night and produced oxygen in the day, causing the swings that Atkinson said made it tough on fish. He said the extra 26 cfs in the river this summer was instrumental in keeping vegetation at bay and protecting the fish.
Fish did start to stack up near where Fish Creek hits the Yampa and some other holes in late June, Atkinson said, but it didn’t reach the extent seen in 2002.
On June 28, 2002, the daily average for the Yampa was 59 cfs. It was 44 cfs on that same date in 2012. But where the flow continued to drop in 2002 — bottoming out at 17 cfs on July 16, 2002 — in 2012, flows bounced back. The daily average for July 16, 2012, was 102 cfs.
Some of that boost in 2012 came from rain, Atkinson said, but the Colorado Water Trust’s release and the collaborative atmosphere it helped usher in was a major boon for the Yampa.
“We were fortunate in the way things aligned,” he said.
While the Yampa lease was the first under the 2003 law, the novel nature of the agreement meant is was not without hurdles.
“There was a learning curve for everyone,” Colorado Water Trust attorney Zach Smith said.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns Stagecoach Reservoir, responded to the trust’s request for water, and the organizations entered negotiations that included the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which holds the in-stream flow right between Stagecoach and Lake Catamount. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District leased the 4,000 acre-feet to the trust for $35 per acre-foot. The water was available because of the expiration of a long-term lease the district had with Tri-State Generation, said Kevin McBride, manager of the conservancy district.
Colorado Division of Water Resources District 6 engineer Erin Light said there were a number of questions that had to be answered in the course of negotiations: Was there going to be an injury to downstream or even upstream users? Is it an undecreed use? Are they exceeding historic use?
Light said the size of the release and its use to generate hydropower were in line with historic norms, and the main difference was that in the past, hydropower releases were considered streamflow, meaning they could be picked up by downstream users. In this case, the trust was releasing water to the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s in-stream flow, and it would be protected above Lake Catamount. Because of an agreement with Tri-State Generation, the release eventually was protected all the way to Craig Station to supply the coal-fired power plant’s cooling needs.
Unlike other temporary leases done by the Colorado Water Trust, the lease with the conservancy district was for only one year. And although the program is widely considered a success, next year could be entirely different.
“If that water is not available in the future, you have more of a difficult situation,” Atkinson said about the Stagecoach reserves. “How do you secure that water? Need money and availability.”
The Colorado Water Trust raises funds for temporary leases and permanent acquisitions to the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s in-stream flow program. The city of Steamboat Springs also put $10,000 toward this year’s lease.
“We talked to (City Manager) Jon (Roberts) pretty early on into our negotiations and wanted his input in terms of what the local community” was thinking, Smith said, calling the contribution a symbol of local support that was very much appreciated.
Van De Carr praised Roberts’ role in working with the trust and City Council to make the lease happen.
He said leadership also will be needed if another drought year rocks the Yampa Valley.
“Now is a good opportunity to grip the bull by the horns and be prepared for the next one,” Van De Carr said.
The Colorado Water Trust is hoping it can use the example of the Yampa lease to get more water rights holders to volunteer, expanding its program in preparation for the next time low flows threaten rivers and ecosystems.
“It told a great story,” Smith said. “A town that really cares about its river, knows that upcoming are voluntary restrictions, but you have a local group upstream that is willing to lease water into that river solely for recreational and environmental purposes.”