The Yampa River

Flowing Free, For Now

The Yampa River is the last major free-flowing river in the seven-state Colorado River Basin. Following an ancient course little altered by humans, the river supports a rare, rich ecosystem, and a thriving recreational industry, including one of the most scenic and exciting rafting experiences on the planet.

Created by Rocky Mountain snowmelt, the Yampa journeys west through a valley of farms and ranches in northwestern Colorado, the popular tourist town of Steamboat Springs, and, swelled by several tributaries, continues through Dinosaur National Monument Park. At the Utah border, it joins the Green River, the chief tributary of the Colorado River.

photo of a riverphoto by eoshea, on Flickr

Water drives Colorado’s economy and quality of life, with winter snowmelt providing 80 percent of the state’s water supply. But Colorado is a thirsty state, its population expected to double by 2050. State water managers project a 25 percent gap between current supply and the water needs of 2050. Climate change and increased drought are hastening the gap. Ergo, a dilemma as challenging as the Yampa’s swirling rapids: Should we keep the river intact to preserve its natural state, or should we dam, divert, and pump its water to help meet the pressing needs of Colorado communities?

Governor John Hickenlooper’s directive to the Colorado Water Conservation Board earlier this year to create a Colorado Water Plan by 2015 has put the Yampa, which has the second largest watershed in the state, under the spotlight.

Efforts to dam the Yampa go back to the proposed construction of Echo Park Dam, which Congress vetoed in 1952, bowing to a groundswell of public outcry led by David Brower, then with the Sierra Club. But in a compromise he later regretted, Brower supported the construction of two other dams: Glen Canyon on the Colorado River and Flaming Gorge on the Green River. The Green and Yampa rivers used to have similar flows and ecosystems. The construction of the Flaming Gorge Dam in 1962 modified the Green’s hydrograph, reducing sediment flow by half and tapering its seasonal fluctuations to a slower, more consistent flow, opening the way for invasive species like the tamarisk tree to crowd out native ones.

More recently, in 2006, there was a proposal to build a reservoir near Maybell, CO, and pump water from the Yampa to a reservoir about 230 miles away for municipal and agricultural use on the Front Range. But the plan was scrapped due to environmental and cost concerns; the reservoir would have cost between $3 billion and $5 billion.

The oil and gas industry is also eyeing the Yampa. Shell Oil had plans to pump about 8 percent of the Yampa’s high-water flow to fill a 1,000-acre reservoir, but it shelved the proposal in 2010, citing a slowdown of its oil-shale development program. Still, oil production in Colorado is at its highest level since 1957 and gas production at an all-time high. While industrial and municipal water needs are projected to increase with population growth, the largest water user, agriculture, will continue to divert the lion’s share of Colorado’s water, around 80 percent. All of which mean the pressure to suck up Yampa’s water is only going to grow.

The most unique characteristic of the Yampa is its wild and unimpeded flow, in particular the extensive spring flooding that washes away sediment, giving the river its brownish hue. This “river dance” helps establish new streamside forests, wetlands, and sandy beaches, as well as shallows that support species like the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker. By late fall, the water barely covers the riverbed in some stretches.

A geological tableau of a billion years is captured in the ochre, white, and rust canyon walls that flank the river. Layers of eras ripple in myriad formations. Petroglyphs and pictographs by the Fremont Indians dot the canyon walls. The yampa, a type of wild carrot, was a favorite staple of the Fremont and their successors, the Ute, hence the river’s name.

The rafting industry, which contributes more than $150 million to Colorado’s economy, has a strong voice when it comes to the Yampa’s future. Although damming the Yampa would provide a more consistent flow over a longer season, George Wendt – founder of OARS, the largest rafting company in the world – speaks for most outfitters when he says he would rather see the Yampa retain its natural state.

Conservationists also argue that the Yampa’s full flow helps meet Colorado’s legal obligation to provide water to the seven states within the Colorado Basin and Mexico. Measures being considered to protect the Yampa include an instream flow appropriation by the Colorado Water Conservation Board that would reserve Yampa’s water for the natural function of rivers, and a Wild and Scenic River designation by Congress.

Many proponents of keeping the Yampa wild point to its value as a baseline – an ecosystem naturally in balance. “If things go awry on dammed rivers, which they do, we have a control river, so to speak,” says Kent Vertrees of The Friends of the Yampa. “Keeping the last wild river in the Colorado Basin intact is important to a healthy environment and so future generations can experience in situ millions of years of history little changed by man.”

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