The Story of the Yampa River

The Yampa River is one of Colorado’s wildest rivers. Because there are few reservoirs along the Yampa, it flows largely as it always has; strong and free. As it crashes down mountains during spring runoff, it spills into its floodplain and provides life to Cottonwood, Red-Osier Dogwood, and Box Elder trees which are less prevalent in other parts of Colorado because rivers are typically more controlled. It is known for hosting native mountain whitefish that thrive in its cool waters.

Photo: Yampa River – John Fielder

As the Yampa River flows toward the bustling town of Steamboat Springs, the river provides for a flurry of activity and business in the community. Locals and tourists enjoy ample fishing, rafting, kayaking, bird watching, hiking, and more along the Yampa. Additionally, much of the Yampa’s water supports local farms and ranches that provide fresh, local food for the community and beyond. Further downstream, the river provides critical habitat for Colorado’s four endangered warmwater fish – these creatures are not found anywhere else on earth besides the greater Colorado River Basin. The Yampa River is the lifeblood of the communities and the plants and wildlife of northwest Colorado. Its protection is vital.

Photos: Rafting and wildlife on the Yampa River — John Fielder

In 2012, the Yampa was hurting. In a typical year, spring runoff peaks in early June, then flows slowly retreat to lower levels. In 2012, flows reached critical lows in mid-June, and conditions led to ripple effects within the community. With a crushing drought, the Yampa had to be closed to all fishing and tubing – a potentially devastating blow to local businesses. Colorado Water Trust engaged in an emergency response effort with Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to address the critical low flow conditions via a lease of water stored in Stagecoach Reservoir. That first year of the project supported aquatic life during a critical period, and it also allowed the Yampa to open to recreation for the July 4th holiday, a crucial time for businesses that rely on the river’s flows.

Photo: Yampa River — John Fielder

Since 2012, Colorado Water Trust has continued to work with numerous partners to support the Yampa River, purchasing and releasing water to the river when it suffers from low flows and high water temperatures. Over 12,000 acre feet, or 4 billion gallons, of water have been released to the Yampa River since 2012 as a result of our project – at times, Colorado Water Trust’s releases have accounted for over half of the flow of the Yampa.

Photo: Yampa River – Dana Dallavalle

After years of successful collaboration, in December of 2018, the City of Steamboat Springs recognized the benefits of Colorado Water Trust’s efforts by issuing an official proclamation, “…recognizing the Colorado Water Trust for its contribution to the health of the Yampa River through Steamboat Springs, Colorado.”

In 2019, Colorado Water Trust participated in the creation of the Yampa River Fund along with a coalition of water managers, local government, ranchers, business leaders, river rats, and conservationists. The endowed fund now helps to pay for projects to improve the health of the Yampa River throughout the Yampa Valley. In 2020, the Yampa River Fund helped fund Colorado Water Trust’s Stagecoach Reservoir releases.

Photo: Yampa River – John Fielder

Additionally, since 2020, Colorado Water Trust participates in a collaboration that restores water to the Lower Yampa River. Starting near Craig and winding downstream to Echo Park at the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers, there is an important reach home to four federally endangered fish species. Thanks to a collaboration of Colorado Water Trust, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the US Fish & Wildlife Services, and the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program, we were able to support a release of 162 million gallons of water to the Lower Yampa River to protect this reach in 2020. We will continue this partnership and restoration work in the years to come.

The Yampa River provides one-third of the water that Colorado contributes to the Colorado River. Thanks to Colorado Water Trust, both the Yampa River and the Colorado River flow stronger because of the hard work and broad collaborations that aim to keep flows at healthy levels and protect the river for the generations to come.

Photo: Yampa River – John Fielder