Steamboat Springs — Desperate times call for desperate measures, and it’s for that reason we’re encouraged by the proactive approach taken by the Colorado Water Trust, the city of Steamboat Springs, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and local commercial tubing businesses to purchase water that could help maintain flows in the Yampa River this summer. Maintaining an adequate streamflow is needed not only to sustain river-based recreation but also to protect the health of the river’s diverse ecosystem.
Northwest Colorado’s paltry snowpack from a dismal winter is no secret, and neither is its effect on the Yampa River. It’s only the second week of June, and the river already is down to levels typically not seen until late July or August. On Tuesday afternoon, the Yampa River where it flows beneath the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat was moving along at only 159 cubic feet per second, compared with the historic June 11 average of 2,100 cfs. With virtually no snow left in Routt County’s high country and the summer monsoon season still a few weeks from its usual start, the likelihood of a reprieve from low water conditions is increasingly slim.
Enter the Colorado Water Trust, the city of Steamboat Springs, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and commercial tubing operators who depend on the Yampa’s summer flow for their businesses’ bottom lines. On June 5, the Steamboat Springs City Council signed off on spending at least $10,000 to purchase discounted water from the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns Stagecoach Reservoir. Steamboat’s Backdoor Sports, One Stop Ski Shop and Bucking Rainbow would pitch in $10,000 of their own, and the Colorado Water Trust plans to spend $140,000. The money for the water purchase would result in a release of about 4,000 acre-feet of water from Stagecoach Reservoir later this summer. The release would be done from July through September, weather and need permitting.
The hope is that releasing the water will maintain streamflows of 85 cfs or greater through Steamboat Springs. There’s no guarantee the 4,000 acre-feet could keep the Yampa through Steamboat above that threshold, but it’s an investment we think makes sense regardless.
Many of us remember summer 2002, when drought conditions led to significant wildfires around Steamboat. That summer also saw the Yampa River drop to levels so low that the river’s trout population was put in serious jeopardy. More alarming is that the Yampa is flowing at a level about half of what it was at the same time a decade ago.
The Yampa River as we know it today — a water body that offers world-class fishing, kayaking and tubing as well as pure mountain water for agricultural irrigation and domestic consumption — is predicated on the existence of upstream dams like Lake Catamount and Stagecoach that help maintain year-round flows. That Stagecoach and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District could play a crucial role in maintaining adequate streamflows for recreation and river health this summer is noteworthy as is the willingness of the Colorado Water Trust, the city of Steamboat Springs and private tubing operators to pay for water to help us through a challenging summer.