A story of how working together can save fish

Written in colloboration with Emma Fredricks and Mickey O’Hara

The Yampa River has long been one of the Water Trust’s major project areas. It is one of the last wild rivers in the West. Until 2018, it had never experienced a “call,” meaning that no water user had ever had their water cut off due to diminished supplies. Anyone who has been to Steamboat or Craig or Dinosaur National Monument will tell you how beautiful the Yampa River is, but what is less known is that it is home to several endangered species, which need sufficient river flows to thrive.

A Humpback Chub, one of the four endangered species. Photo taken by Travis Francis, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In previous years, we have focused on the upper part of the river, working alongside a number of partners including, but not limited to, the City of Steamboat Springs and Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District to release water from Stagecoach Reservoir. But that water only makes it so far downriver, and while we try to help the endangered fish down in the lower Yampa, we are always looking for ways to do that more directly.

Enter Elkhead Reservoir, which is on Elkhead Creek a few miles off the Yampa mainstem. This year, for the first time, we supported two efforts to add additional flow to the lower Yampa, using water stored in Elkhead. Because of our efforts to raise money for existing efforts and develop a new one, 500 acre feet (162.9 million gallons) of water flowed down the lower Yampa that otherwise would not have.

First, we provided funding to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and US Fish and Wildlife Service to support the Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s lease of water stored in Elkhead Reservoir, part of a larger program to support the Recovery Program. This support was made possible through a 2018 Colorado Water Conservation Board grant.

Second, we leased an additional 250 acre-feet of Elkhead water owned by the Colorado River District, and released it into the Recovery Program’s Critical Habitat Reach, as well. This project was funded by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and was released at a rate of 40 cfs over three days in September.

There are many entities and agencies managing river flows for endangered fish on the lower Yampa. It’s not just us! Separate releases from the Endangered Fish Recovery Program, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and the Colorado River District, allowed that “call,” the second-ever on the Yampa, to be lifted. This allowed for not only healthier habitat, but also supported all water users on the river in what was a challenging year for many. We’re very proud to be part of this effort, as it’s a reminder that the most effective flow restoration projects are collaborative, in this case extending from nonprofits like Colorado Water Trust, to corporations and government from the federal to the local level.

Our challenges will continue of course, as climate change continues to take its share of flow from the Yampa. But we’ll be ready, as always, with creative solutions and awesome partnerships.

For more details on the project, click here!