Flows in the Yampa River dropped to near 40 cubic feet per second on Sunday afternoon — just a quarter of the amount of water flowing the same day last year.
The water’s temperature eclipsed 80 degrees last Thursday and has often been well over 75 degrees in the past week — the temperature that closed the river to recreation earlier this month.
But at 8:45 a.m. Monday morning [July 26, 2021], the outlet valve at Stagecoach Reservoir was opened a little bit further and 20 cfs more of water was flowing into the river.
This will bring the outward flow from Stagecoach up to about 40 cfs with the goal of boosting water levels and decreasing temperature in the Yampa as it flows through Steamboat Springs.
“I think (the strategic releases) are very effective at protecting the health of the river,” said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns and operates Stagecoach.
The releases hope to buoy flows in the Yampa and protect its aquatic species, as Northwest Colorado is entrenched in the worst level of drought recorded by the U.S. Drought Monitor and several stretches of the river have been closed to recreation, including one of the most popular stretches to fish in the state…
While the release will help increase flows and sustain the health of the river, Rossi said it likely wouldn’t have enough of an effect on its own to open the river back up for commercial outfitters and anglers.
The release was purchased by the Colorado Water Trust, which finalized a contract to purchase 1,000 acre-feet of water with an option for another 1,000 acre-feet with the conservancy district earlier this month.
This amounts to 40 acre-feet of additional water released into the river each day, with the first 1,000 acre-feet lasting until about the third week in August, Rossi said. The district and trust will meet weekly about the releases, and Rossi said he expected to know when and how much of the other 1,000 acre-feet of water would be released before then.
When that 2,000 acre-feet of water has been used up, the city of Steamboat Springs plans to coordinate with community partners to release additional water and maintain the health of the river.
The water trust raised over $100,000 to support releases this year from both Stagecoach and Elkhead Reservoir further downstream. More than 90% of that money came from the Yampa River Fund, which is a collaboration with more than 20 community partners, including outdoor recreation businesses, the city of Steamboat, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and Routt and Moffatt counties, among others…
The trust opted to release the water now because of how hot the water in the river got last week and how low flows had dwindled. It will likely take at least a day to see the impacts of the release, as it will take time for the water to flow from Stagecoach, which includes going through Lake Catamount.
The trust has spent nearly a half-million dollars since 2012 on 12,000 acre-feet of water releases from Stagecoach. The first 1,000 acre-feet of water from the most recent release will cost $45,560.
This water will be shepherded by the Division of Water Resources locally, ensuring that another water user does not remove the release from the river until at least the Steamboat wastewater treatment plant to the west of town.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District has already released about 1,600 acre-feet of water this year for environmental purposes when water was only coming into the reservoir at a trickle…
Starting Aug. 1, the reservoir is required to release at least 20 cfs to satisfy permits for hydropower production, though it has been releasing about that much for most of the year.
The release requires navigating some legal hoops, as the current laws were not designed for purchases of water that are meant to stay in the river. This requires the trust to partner with an entity like Steamboat, which is justifying the release as water temperature mitigation.
Click here to read the report (Natalie K. Day). Here’s the abstract:
The Upper Yampa River Basin drains approximately 2,100 square miles west of the Continental Divide in north-western Colorado. There is a growing need to understand potential changes in the quantity and quality of water resources as the basin is undergoing increasing land and water development to support growing municipal, industrial, and recreational needs. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with stakeholders in the Upper Yampa River Basin water community, began a study to characterize and identify changes in streamflow and selected water-quality constituents, including suspended sediment, Kjeldahl nitrogen, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, and orthophosphate, in the basin. This study used streamflow and water-quality data from selected U.S. Geological Survey sites to provide a better understanding of how major factors, including land use, climate change, and geological features, may influence streamflow and water quality.
Analysis of long-term (1910–2018) and short-term (1992–2018) records of streamflow at main-stem Yampa River and tributary sites indicate downward trends in one or more streamflow statistics, including 1-day maximum, mean, and 7-day minimum. Long-term downward trends in daily mean streamflow in April (22 percent overall) at Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, correspond to observed changes in streamflow documented across western North America and the Colorado River Basin that are predominately associated with changes in snowmelt runoff and temperatures. During the short-term period of analysis, decreases in streamflow at main-stem Yampa River and some tributary sites are likely related to changes in consumptive use and reservoir management or, at sites with no upstream flow impoundments, changes in irrigation diversions and climate.
Concentrations of water-quality constituents were typically highest in spring (March, April, and May) during the early snowmelt runoff period as material that is washed off the land surface drains into streams. Highest concentrations occurred slightly later, in May, June, and July, at Yampa River above Stagecoach Reservoir, Colo., and slightly earlier, in February and March at Yampa River at Milner, Colo., indicating that these sites may have different or additional sources of phosphorus from upstream inputs. Yampa River at Milner, Colo., and Yampa River above Elkhead Creek, Colo., had the highest net yields of suspended sediment, Kjeldahl nitrogen, and total phosphorus, and are likely influenced by land use and erosion as the basins of both of these sites are underlain by highly erodible Cretaceous shales.
Upward trends in estimated Kjeldahl nitrogen and total phosphorus concentrations and loads were found at Yampa River at Steamboat Springs, Colo. From 1999 to 2018, the Kjeldahl nitrogen concentration increased by 10 percent or 0.035 milligram per liter, and load increased by 22 percent or 26 tons. Total phosphorus concentration increased by 20 percent or 0.0081 milligram per liter, and loads increased by 41 percent or 6.2 tons. Decreases in streamflow and changes in land use may contribute to these trends.
During multiple summer sampling events at Stagecoach Reservoir, the physical and chemical factors indicated conditions conducive to cyanobacterial blooms, including surface-water temperatures greater than 20 degrees Celsius and total phosphorus and total nitrogen concentrations in exceedance of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment interim concentrations for water-quality standards. Local geological features (predominately sandstones and shales) and additional inputs from upstream land use likely contribute to the elevated nutrient conditions in Stagecoach Reservoir.
Since state officials began a more focused monitoring effort six years ago to detect toxic algae blooms in Colorado’s lakes and reservoirs, testing has documented harmful levels of such toxins three times on the Western Slope.
Two of those toxic blooms occurred in Routt County reservoirs — first at Stagecoach Reservoir in 2019 and then at Steamboat Lake last summer, which was the first year that state park managers were required to regularly test for toxic algae. Results showing bacteria above state thresholds caused a two-week swimming closure at the popular state park.
Since 2014, toxic algae has been discovered in nine Front Range lakes or reservoirs, while the only other Western Slope bloom was found in 2018 at Fruitgrowers Reservoir in Delta County.
More research is needed to determine the causes of these recent blooms. But an increase in testing due to more stringent Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) toxic algae monitoring protocol, a history of ranching around and on reservoir land, and climate change are probably contributing to the increase in recorded toxic blooms on the Western Slope.
Steamboat Lake State Park manager Julie Arington said the updated CPW monitoring and testing guidelines influenced the discovery of the toxic bloom last summer. The new guidelines, which were updated going into the season, require park managers to regularly test for toxins May through September, according to CPW officials.
“It may have been there before (this year), but we just didn’t notice it. We hadn’t been testing for it,” Arington said. But in mid-August, when water temperatures were at their warmest, toxin levels were found to be above the recently-established thresholds and park managers shut down the lake to swimming for two weeks, until winds and cooler temperatures slowed the blooms down.
Blue-green algae that populate lakes in and of themselves are not harmful and form the basis of the riparian food web. Under certain conditions, however, the algae multiply rapidly, form blooms and produce toxins.
Nutrients and warming cause these blooms, said Jill Baron, a research ecologist and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Period.”
Toxic algae feed off phosphorus and nitrogen, nutrients sourced from fertilizers, vehicle emissions, sewage, soil, animal excrement and plant material. If ingested in levels above state health standards, the toxins cause sickness, liver and brain damage when ingested during recreational lake activity or when drinking contaminated water.
Tracing Steamboat and Stagecoach nutrients
Steamboat and Stagecoach reservoirs sit in the greater Yampa basin to the north and south, respectively, of Steamboat Springs. Steamboat Lake, which holds 23,064 acre-feet of water, is portioned off a creek that feeds into the Elk River, a tributary of the Yampa. Stagecoach, which holds 36,439 acre-feet of water, is a dammed section of the Yampa River.
Nutrients deposited at the bottom of both reservoirs from decades of ranching probably contribute to the blue-green algae blooms. By the early 1880s, settlers were ranching in the Yampa Valley, including the lands that would become Stagecoach and Steamboat reservoirs, said Katie Adams, curator for the Tread of Pioneers museum.
Steamboat Lake was constructed in 1967 with funds from the operators of Hayden Station power plant and the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. It became a state park in 1972.
The former ranch lands where Stagecoach is today were bought in 1971 by the Woodmoor Corporation, which planned to build a residential and recreational community with ski areas and golf courses, but the company went bankrupt in 1974. The site was later bought and developed by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and power companies, which funded the reservoir’s construction in 1988. So, for decades leading up to the post-war era, cattle excrement was enriching the reservoir lands with nitrogen and phosphorus — nutrients that fuel the growth of blue-green algae.
Those involved in planning and constructing Stagecoach Reservoir were told algae blooms were a likelihood, said Stagecoach State Park manager Craig Preston.
“Even when they were going through the (construction) processes, they were told there would likely be algae situations, because of the nutrients in the soil,” Preston said.
Baron agrees that nutrients at the bottom of both lakes probably contribute to the blooms.
“They basically took a meadow and turned it into a lake. So, all that vegetation and organic matter on the bottom of that meadow is slowly decomposing and putting its nutrients into the lake itself,” Baron said.
Researchers are focusing on the region to determine which specific sources of nitrogen and phosphorus prompt harmful algal growth. The USGS has been collecting data on algae compositions in Stagecoach Reservoir and in the greater Yampa River watershed and will analyze possible sources of blue-green algae as part of the report, USGS hydrologist Cory Williams said. The results of the study will be published in February or March, according to Williams.
Origins and evolution of state protocol and monitoring
CPW began drafting toxic-algae protocol the summer of 2014, after a local agency found microcystin — a toxin commonly produced by blue-green algae — in Denver’s Cherry Creek Reservoir, said CPW Water Quality Coordinator Mindi May.
“At the time, we didn’t know what the numbers meant. So, we started looking around for state or federal thresholds, and there just weren’t any,” May said.
That same summer, a toxic bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water of 400,000 residents, forcing officials in Toledo, Ohio, to cut off water for three days. After these two events, May asked Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment staff to develop toxic-algae thresholds for drinking water and recreation, and traveled to state parks in 2015 to encourage staff to test for — and monitor — toxic algae during summer months.
CDPHE developed protocol and thresholds for toxic algae in 2016, based on Environmental Protection Agency standards created in 2014. The thresholds dictate the maximum amount of toxins that lakes can contain, including 8 micrograms per liter for microcystin and saxitoxin, and 15 micrograms per liter for anatoxin and cylindrospermopsin. If lakes cross this threshold, state park managers must post danger signs and close the lake to activities involving bodily contact with the water until tests show that toxins fall below harmful levels, May said.
In 2018, the CDPHE developed a database to compile monitoring and testing efforts in Colorado reservoirs and track the occurrence of toxic-algae blooms since 2014. Data from park managers’ toxin tests are included, along with data collected by CDPHE officials and other local and federal agencies, said MaryAnn Nason, CDPHE’s communications and special projects unit manager.
“We really learned a lot in those early years, and we have a lot more resources now to monitor and test for toxins,” May said of CPW’s and CDPHE’s efforts.
Western lakes lack data but will feel burn of climate change
CDPHE data shows an increase in toxic blooms from 2014 to 2020 and hints that these blooms are spreading west. Last summer recorded seven toxic blooms, compared with four in 2019 and one in 2018. Yet, increases could also be due to increased monitoring and testing over the years and due to the new 2020 protocol. For instance, 52 lakes were monitored for toxic algae in 2014, compared with 73 last summer.
More data is needed to determine how climate change and nutrients will interact to produce toxic blooms, and determine the impacts this will have on drinking water and summer recreation for high country and Western Slope lakes.
It is likely that climate change will spur more toxic blooms in the West. In a 2017 study of 27 Rocky Mountain lakes, researchers project that climate change will cause average annual lake-surface temperatures to increase 41% by 2080, with dramatically warmer water in the summer and 5.9 fewer ice-free days with each passing decade.
Warmer lakes create a widened window for toxic algae to bloom. A separate national study, also from 2017, predicts that rising air temperatures and the resultant warmer waters will increase toxic-bloom occurrence from an average of seven days per year in U.S reservoirs now to 16-23 days in 2050 and 18-39 days in 2090.
Long-term solutions for current and future blooms include placing limits on greenhouse gas, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus emissions, Baron said. Short-term solutions include waiting for blue-green algae to stop producing toxins and keeping visitors out of the water while they do, said May.
As frosty temperatures inhibit algal growth, Steamboat and Stagecoach park managers get a break from thinking about the turquoise-tinted toxins. In May, they’ll start the second season of following the parks’ new protocol, May said.
Regarding last summer’s toxic bloom, Steamboat Lake State Park’s Arington said, “I think this won’t be the last year that we see it.”
This story ran in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Dec. 31.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District has started releasing water from Stagecoach Reservoir to boost flows into the city of Steamboat Springs’ waste water treatment plant.
The release of 350 acre-feet of water also has the aim of keeping water temperatures cooler to protect the health of the ecosystem and to meet local supply needs, according to a news release from the district. This comes as rivers across Colorado are experiencing varying degrees of drought…
The district also initiated its annual drawdown of Stagecoach Reservoir, during which managers will gradually release an additional 1,000 acre-feet of water through Sept. 30.
All of this means higher flows on the local river. As of Tuesday, the Yampa River was flowing at about 160 cubic feet per second at the U.S. Geological Survey’s stream gauge at the Fifth Street Bridge, up from 90 cfs on Aug. 11…
Thanks to a grant from the Yampa River Fund, the Colorado Water Trust will lease an additional 500 acre-feet of water from the Conservation District, which is intended to improve river health and enhance flows during the hot, dry weeks ahead, according to the news release. The Water Trust can purchase additional water if necessary, up to 4,000 acre-feet for the rest of the year…
This marks the seventh year in the past decade that the Water Trust leased water from Stagecoach River to maintain healthy flows and water temperatures. The organization uses forecast models and historical data to gauge how much water to release during any given year.
Andy Rossi now manages the conservation district following more than a decadelong tenure with the group. The change comes after the retirement of former manager Kevin McBride, who managed the district since 2009.
Rossi joined the group that same year as its district engineer. His knowledge of the district’s facilities and operations near the headwaters of the Yampa River, namely Yamcolo and Stagecoach reservoirs, was a major factor in the board’s decision to promote him, according to a news release. Before that, he worked at multiple consulting firms specializing in water resources…
Rossi also will oversee the implementation of the district’s new strategic plan. Among the plan’s goals include developing long-term financial sustainability, protecting local water from out-of-district transfers and improving watershed management.
With regards to that last goal, Rossi noted a need to utilize new technology and scientific-based studies for water management. For example, one of the panelists at a recent Yampa Basin Rendezvous discussion, snowpack researcher Dr. Jeffrey Deems, described his work with the Airborne Snow Observatory.
The observatory uses specialized aircraft equipped with sensors to collect data on snowmelt across entire regions of mountains and their waterways. The data has helped communities to better manage their water supplies.
According to Deems, the Kings River Water Association in California was able to avoid a flood declaration in 2019, which led to savings of $100 million, by basing its dam release policy on forecasts from the Airborne Snow Observatory instead of traditional measurements.
Rossi said he would like to incorporate some of the observatory’s data next year on a trial basis, which also would help the researchers receive feedback on the new technology…
These efforts have the overarching goal of preserving the health of the Yampa River for the people, plants and creatures that depend upon it. Rossi described the river as the most important natural resource in the area.
“It is the natural resource that defines this valley,” he said.
To that end, Rossi aims to maintain the district’s existing facilities, such as the dam at Stagecoach Reservoir, which not only helps to meet water demands for a growing community but also generates hydroelectric power.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District formed in 1966 following the passage of the Water Conservancy Act of the state of Colorado. Its mission has been conserving, developing and stabilizing supplies of water for irrigation, power generation, manufacturing and other uses.
Water leaders from across the state converged on Steamboat Springs this week as part of the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference.
The Colorado Water Congress is a group of people who work and live in water, explained Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger…
In a legislative update, attendees heard about three proposals that could change water management in the state. Reps. Dylan Roberts, Jeni Arndt and Donald Valdez and Sens. Kerry Donovan, Jerry Sonnenberg and Don Coram sat on the panel.
“As somebody who represents Routt County and other Western Slope counties, we know what a dry year looks like,” Roberts said. “We just had one last year, and we’re fortunate to have a wet year this year, but we have to continuously plan for those dry years and look at any legislation that helps us to preserve and conserve as much water as possible, prevent forest fires and protect agriculture, because they’re the ones that really lose out when we have dry years.”
Changes to a program that increases river flow in dry years
The instream flow program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to designate water rights to preserve or improve the natural environment of a stream.
In the Yampa River, this program has been used to release reservoir water to boost flows through Steamboat in dry summers.
Under the current law, the program allows people who hold water rights to temporarily loan reservoir water to the state to boost flows in a stream three times over the course of a 10-year period. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has already used loaned water for an instream flow in the Upper Yampa River three times in 2012, 2013 and 2017.
Though reservoir water has been released in other years, including last summer, it was under a different legal mechanism.
Roberts, a Democrat who represents Routt and Eagle counties, introduced a bill that would allow for more instream flow releases.
“Once the 10-year period is done, you’re done forever, and you can never do it again,” Roberts explained. “So while city of Steamboat and the Yampa River has taken advantage of that program, they’ve started their 10-year clock. Once we hit 10 years in 2022, they won’t be able to use it again, so if we have a really low water year on the Yampa in 2023 or 2024, we won’t be able to use the instream flow to keep the Yampa running through town.”
The bill, as currently proposed, would allow these loans for five of every 10 years and allow it to be renewed twice once those 10-year periods end.
This would improve stream habitat, Roberts said, as well as limit economic impacts due to river closures placed during low flows that impact tubing outfitters, fishing shops and the businesses that benefit from recreation in the area.
Monger, who sits on the board of the Upper Yampa Conservancy District, said the program has “been a great thing.” The district operates Stagecoach Reservoir.
“(The district’s) actually been fortunate enough to have some available wet water that we can send down through to the city of Steamboat Springs, and it helps with water quality as well as water temperature,” he said. “It’s been a great thing, and the upper Yampa sells a little bit of water for its revenue sources to be able to take care of the water, so that’s a good thing.”
It would also expand the program by allowing more water to be released to create more habitat for aquatic species, whereas currently, these releases are smaller releases designated only to preserve the existing natural environment…
Ballot measure to legalize sports betting with tax revenue funding water projects
Earlier this year, the legislature passed a measure that will ask voters to legalize sports betting with tax revenue from the practice funding the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan.
If approved by voters, Colorado would allow some casinos to offer a sports book, essentially a room with a betting board and “every game known to man” on television screens, as Donovan put it. Casinos could also contract with online sports betting companies, such as DraftKings and FanDuel, to operate web-based sports betting. People could bet on college, professional and Olympic games.
While sports betting has taken place in the state, it’s currently illegal.
“This is a chance to legalize an action that we know is happening on the ground and to provide regulation protection under that act if people choose to bet on sports betting,” Donovan said.
A 10% tax on each wager would be paid by casinos, with the bulk of the revenue funding the Colorado Water Plan. Some revenue would be directed to administrative costs, a hold harmless fund and a gambling crisis hotline.
The Colorado Water Plan outlines a number of actions such as conserving more water used by cities and industry, storing more water, establishing plans to protect critical watersheds and increasing public awareness of water issues. The Yampa-White-Green River Basin Roundtable would implement the plan locally.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis requested $30 million to fund the plan and statewide drought planning. The legislature granted $8.3 million to fund the water plan and $1.7 million for drought planning…
Using new technology to trade water rights in real-time
Another law, passed earlier this year, establishes an advisory group to study possible uses of blockchain technology within agriculture.
Blockchain is a way to track transactions, and it uses the same record-keeping technology as bitcoin. Each transaction within the network, whether the blockchain network is trading water or money, is recorded in a block and includes data about transactions under a unique signature, sort of like a username. Each transaction is verified by the network of computers in the blockchain.
Evan Thomas, director of the Mortensen Center in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, presented on possible applications of blockchain in the world of water rights. Blockchain could create a system to trade water by using sensors that track how much water is used or conserved to create “water credits.”
“(Those water credits are) entered into the blockchain,” Thomas said. “Somebody requests a transaction. They say ‘I need to buy more water this month, so I want to buy somebody else’s water credits.’ You enter in that transactionm, and they buy and sell points. The sensor identifies water use and water consumption, (and) turns that into a blockchain node.”
Thomas said this is a worthwhile tool to study in its applications for water rights, but that it is one part of a “suite of tools” that should be examined to update how water is traded.
…in dry, hot years like 2018, owners of Elkhead water were glad to have the backup.
“The reservoir served a good purpose for multiple reasons in Moffat County,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District.
Both the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and Tri-State Generation & Transmission had to call on their water stored at Elkhead this year. They are among four major owners of water in the reservoir, which also includes the city of Craig and the river district. The city drew ample water from the Yampa and didn’t need Elkhead water this year.
The Fish Recovery Program owns 5,000 acre-feet of water, which it procured when the reservoir was expanded in 2006 in exchange for a $13.5 million contribution to the project. An acre-foot is enough to cover one acre, about the size of a football field, with one foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons.
The Recovery Program also has the option to lease an additional 2,000 acre-feet from the River District, bringing its total to 7,000 usable acre-feet of water…
The Recovery Program utilized every drop of its 7,000 acre-feet, releasing water into the Yampa beginning in late July — unusually early — and continuing until October.
With the prolonged summer drought, Yampa flows dropped to a precipitously low 38 cubic feet per second by early October in Maybell, where the United States Geological Survey operates a stream gauge. The Maybell gauge is used to determine how much water is making it downriver and how much to release from Elkhead. For comparison, the Recovery Program ordinarily aims to keep flows at 93 cfs or greater, Anderson said.
Drought poses some obvious challenges to native fish populations. Colorado pikeminnow can reach lengths of 2 to 3 feet, according to Tom Chart, director of the Recovery Program, and low flows in the river can make it difficult for them to swim…
When river flows dropped too low this year, Tri-State called on its water in both Elkhead and Stagecoach reservoirs to keep the plant operational.
From Elkhead, it used 341 acre-feet of water, according to the River District, though it owns much more. Tri-State secured 2,500 acre-feet of water when the reservoir was expanded, plus it owns a portion of an 8,408 acre-foot pool shared by owners of Craig Station Units 1 and 2. Additionally, Tri-state owns 4,000 acre-feet of storage in Yamcolo Reservoir and 7,000 acre-feet in Stagecoach, according to the 2004 Yampa River Basin report.
Tri-state would not divulge how much water it used from Stagecoach this year. According to historical data provided in the 2004 report, however, Craig Station’s annual water use averaged more than 11,000 acre-feet per year between 1985 and 1991. Again, Tri-state declined to provide more recent data.
Decisions about how much water to release out of Elkhead are evaluated in a weekly phone call between the reservoir’s partners and users, state officials, meteorologists, irrigators, and other stakeholders, all led by Anderson. Water levels in the reservoir dropped slightly lower than average this year, down to 12 feet instead of 14 — revealing more shoreline than some are used to seeing — but recreational use of the reservoir by fisherman and boaters wasn’t significantly affected.
The reservoir collects water from a 205-square-mile basin and reliably recharges with spring runoff each year. Water managers worry about what would happen if drought persisted for several years, but so far, Elkhead has offered a measure of security to Moffat County’s biggest water users.
FromSteamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck) via The Craig Daily Press:
The past water year, which began in October 2017 and ended in September, broke records on the Yampa. Average temperatures in much of the Yampa River basin were the warmest on record, and for the first time ever, the main stem of the Yampa River was placed on call, meaning use of Yampa water was curtailed.
This summer, the portion of the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs city limits was open to summer recreation — including tubing, fishing, and paddling — for about 40 days, one of the shortest summer seasons on this stretch of river. For much of the summer, the river was under a voluntary closure as the water was too hot, too low or without enough dissolved oxygen to meet streamflow standards set by the city and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to protect river habitat.
Warm and dry summer
The Yampa and Colorado rivers peaked in mid-May, and according to long-term averages of daily flows, both rivers normally peak in June. This led to the second earliest start to tubing season on the Yampa in 10 years.
A warm spring played a role in this — as snow melted off the mountains earlier, water flowed downhill into the river and its tributaries earlier. This water year was the warmest on record in the state, according to the Colorado Climate Center.
In Routt County, about half of the county saw its warmest water year on record, while parts of central and south Routt saw temperatures in ranges that placed it among the top 10 percent of the record.
Most of Routt County received below normal precipitation this year, though the area fared better than other parts of Colorado. The National Weather and Climate Center’s snow telemetry sites in the Routt County area received 70 to 80 percent of average precipitation this year, through July, August and September saw lower rainfall compared to historic averages.
“Statewide, this was the fourth driest year in the 123-year record,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs. “It was fourth only to 2012, 1934 and 2002.”
This year was the driest water year on record in southwest Colorado, western Moffat County and parts of the San Luis Valley, according to the Colorado Climate Center.
Human-caused temperature increases and drought have caused earlier spring snowmelt and shifted runoff earlier in the year across the southwest, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.
“Not only are we in situations where we get less water, but we get it earlier, which makes for a longer season of need,” said Kevin McBride, district manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
His agency operates Stagecoach and Yamcolo reservoirs.
The early runoff means producers kicked off the irrigation season earlier, too. Producers are also seeing longer growing seasons in Colorado, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Reservoir water keeps flows up
Drought conditions and warm temperatures have made supplementing the Yampa River’s natural flow with releases of reservoir water a consistent practice in recent years.
Since 2012, the Colorado Water Trust has purchased reservoir water to supplement flows in the Yampa River. This year, Tri-State Generation and Transmission also released water from Elkhead Reservoir to keep up power generation at Craig Station.
The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program releases water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide habitat for bonytail, razorback suckers, and humpback chub. These releases are determined based on the amount of water flowing by the U.S. Geological Survey’s stream gauge near Maybell in western Moffat County.
“Obviously, when you have low flow years, you have warmer stream temperatures and then less habitat available to aquatic life,” Romero-Heaney said.
In Steamboat, the river dropped to 50 cubic feet per second — low flow — during spawning season for brown trout, she added. That made habitat more difficult to come by, and Romero-Heaney said it could have impacts to fish populations in the upper Yampa.
The Yampa Valley suffered major droughts in 2002 and 2012. In 2002, the USGS reported less than 10 cubic feet per second of flow at the Maybell gauge at the Yampa River’s lowest points in the summer, said Erin Light, area division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Reservoir releases likely kept the water higher than that mark this summer. The USGS streamflow gauges can’t show how much water is natural flow and how much is reservoir water, so stream gauge measurements don’t reflect the full picture when it comes to water…
When the call was administered for about two weeks in September, the water at the Yampa’s lower reach through Dinosaur National Monument fell to about 18 cfs — its long-term average for the same time frame is about 260 cfs. At Lily Park, near the Little Snake River’s confluence with the Yampa, irrigators’ pumps were sweeping the river, Light said earlier this year.
Planning for the future
Romero-Heaney said flows on the Yampa in Steamboat were “extremely low,” falling below 34 cfs at the gauge at the Fifth Street Bridge in Steamboat…
The city outlined its plans to purchase reservoir water on contract to boost flows in dry periods in the Yampa River Streamflow Management Plan released this summer. The plan also seeks to implement voluntary projects that would pay water users to participate in projects enhancing the health of the river.
Earlier this year, some of the city’s water rights were curtailed in the call. As droughts and warm temperatures become more common, releases to augment river health will likely have to be balanced with releases to augment municipal water.
The Colorado Water Trust will release a total of 600 acre-feet of water from Stagecoach Reservoir, initially at a rate of 15 cubic feet per second. The releases began on Saturday, said Zach Smith, an attorney for the organization.
“We’ve worked with them to deliver water to and through Steamboat Springs to improve both the fishery and the recreational opportunities that folks there have,” Smith said.
For the most part, the river has hovered between 80 and 90 cfs since July 7. Since the releases, about 90 to 100 cfs of water have been flowing under the Fifth Street Bridge in downtown Steamboat.
Even with the boost, the river is flowing well below its average for the date. It was flowing at 90 cfs at 11 a.m. Tuesday, about 32 percent of its long-term average flow of 273 cfs for July 17…
Though the river is up, it’s unlikely the city would lift voluntary recreational closures on the river through Steamboat.
“At this point, it is not likely that the increased flows from the release are enough to lift the river closure with the current weather patterns that we are seeing,” Craig Robinson, interim director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, wrote in an email.
The river is still heating up with water temperatures above 75 degrees, he added. That high temperatures stress trout and other aquatic species that are adapted to live in the Yampa’s cold-water ecosystem. The high water temperatures also decreases the amount of oxygen available to organisms in the river.
“The flows are very helpful for river health as conditions would likely be worse without this additional flow,” Robinson wrote. “If the monsoon season started, and we had a pattern of daily moisture and cooler temps, these combined factors with the additional cfs from the release could reduce the stressors, and the closure could be lifted.”
A mandatory fishing closure is still in place in the tailwaters of Stagecoach Reservoir. The river is closed between the dam and the lowermost park boundary. Anglers who violate the Colorado Parks and Wildlife closure order could receive citations.
The agency also has instituted a voluntary closure of the river from Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area to the western edge of Steamboat. Area Wildlife Manager Kris Middledorf said wildlife managers and biologists continue to discuss river conditions and evaluate the agency’s closures.
Once snowpack melts, increases in the Yampa’s flow come from the area’s sparse rainfall, reservoir releases and groundwater that returns to the river after it’s used to irrigate agriculture.
Since 2012, reservoir releases have boosted flows in the Yampa in every year except 2014, Smith said. Last year, the Yampa saw the last release allowed under an approval issued by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which allowed for three years of releases to benefit in-stream flows over the course of 10 years.
Current releases operate outside of the Water Conservation Board program and are designated to benefit municipal users.
“The fish don’t care by which legal mechanism that water is in there, as long as the flow is up,” Smith said.
The Water Trust purchased the water using funding from the Nature Conservancy, Tri-State Generation and Oskar Blues Brewery’s CAN’d Aid Foundation.
Should flows in the river remain low once the Colorado Water Trust’s initial 600 acre-feet of water is sent downstream, the trust could use other funding sources to purchase more water, Smith said. In the past, the city has cooperated to release city-owned water from the reservoir after the Colorado Water Trust has released its allocation of water, he added.
“We know that the community up there loves this river, and they love it enough to know when to get out of it when it’s stressed,” Smith said. “If we can improve it with additional flow for the community up there, that’s what the Water Trust is around for.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is lifting the mandatory fishing closure on the sixth-tenth mile section of the Yampa River below the dam at Stagecoach State Park, effective immediately…
Voluntary closures remain in effect on the river through Steamboat Springs between the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area and the west end of town.
Parks and Wildlife officials caution some form of angling restrictions could be re-enacted should environmental conditions worsen…
“Fish early when it’s cooler, and take care when handling fish,” he said. “Land them quickly, handle them gently with wet hands, or use a net, then return them to the water as soon as possible.”
The mandatory closure was implemented June 14 to protect the fishery after minimal snowpack resulted in low stream flows during the hottest time of the year. Since then, Parks and Wildlife has been continuously monitoring conditions on this stretch of river.
Anglers are encouraged to call their local Parks and Wildlife office for the latest information about fishing closures, fishing conditions and alternative places to fish.
For more information, contact Stagecoach State Park at 970-736-2436, or Parks and Wildlife’s Steamboat Springs office at 970-870-2197.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Mike Porras):
Due to critically low water flow caused by dry conditions and minimal snowpack levels, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will close a 0.6-mile stretch of the Yampa River between the dam at Stagecoach State Park down to the lowermost park boundary.
The closure begins June 14 and will continue until further notice.
“Should the flow rate increase substantially for a continuous period of time, CPW will re-evaluate the emergency fishing closure,” said Senior Aquatic Biologist Lori Martin. “But for now, we need to take this course of action because of the current conditions at this popular fishery.”
When water flows are minimal, fish become concentrated in residual pool habitat and become stressed due to increased competition for food resources. The fish become much easier targets for anglers, an added stressor that can result in increased hooking mortality.
“We are trying to be as proactive as possible to protect the outstanding catch and release trout fishery we have downstream of Stagecoach Reservoir,” said Area Aquatic Biologist Bill Atkinson. “This stretch of the river receives a tremendous amount of fishing pressure, especially in the spring when other resources might not be as accessible. This emergency closure is an effort to protect the resource by giving the fish a bit of a reprieve when they are stressed like they are right now.”
CPW advises anglers to find alternative areas to fish until the order is rescinded. Many other local areas are now fishable, with tributaries contributing water to maintain various fisheries. Several area lakes are also open and fishing well.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife asks for cooperation from anglers; however, the closure will be enforced by law with citations issued for anyone violating the order.
Wildlife officials warn when a fish population is significantly affected by low flows or other unfavorable environmental conditions, it could take several years for it to fully recover if not protected.
Like many rivers and streams in western Colorado, the Yampa River offers world-class fishing and attracts thousands of anglers each year, providing a source of income to local businesses that depend on outdoor recreation.
“We ask for the public’s patience and cooperation,” said Atkinson. “It is very important that we do what we can to protect this unique fishery, not only for anglers, but for the communities that depend on the tourism revenue this area provides for local businesses.”
For more information, contact Stagecoach State Park at 970-736-2436, or CPW’s Steamboat Springs office at 970-870-2197.
From the Craig Daily Press (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Yampa River basin has received 73 percent of the average amount of snow it typically receives by this time of year. The Little Snake River basin has received 72 percent. In river basins in the southwest and south central part of the state, this number is in the 30s.
The drastic difference in snowpack between the northern and southern parts of the state is thanks to the La Niña winter. La Niña is a weather phase that cools the waters of the Pacific.
A La Niña year influences weather patterns around the globe, but in the United States, it creates a ridge of high pressure in the West. Storms develop in the moist air of the Pacific Northwest, then ride the jet stream on the northern edge of this high-pressure ridge.
National Weather Service meteorologist Megan Stackhouse calls these storms “northern clippers.” They typically hit only the northern edge of Colorado.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of Colorado (except a sliver at the northern edge, containing Larimer and Jackson counties) is facing drought or near-drought conditions.
Eastern Moffat County is abnormally dry, which is a pre-cursor to a drought designation. West of Maybell, the county is in a moderate drought. Steamboat Springs is also in a moderate drought, which could have implications for Moffat County, as snowpack in the Park Range melts into Moffat’s water supply.
Stackhouse said it would take 40 to 60 inches of snow for the Yampa/White River basin to reach an average level of precipitation for this water year. Receiving that much snow is not out of the question, though it’s unlikely.
With this in mind, Tom Gray, Moffat County’s representative to the Colorado River District, cautions the public not to panic before it’s warranted. In 2015, he said, Northwest Colorado faced a similar light snow year. Then, there was a “miracle May.” Mountain storms dumped snow late in the season and brought the basin back up to the average…
Gray and others at the Colorado River District are worried about meeting obligations under the Colorado River Compact. Under the agreement, the state of Colorado is required to contribute a 10-year rolling average amount of water downstream to the Colorado River system to help fill reservoirs such as Lake Powell.
So far, Colorado is set to contribute about 40 percent of its average annual contribution, according to Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs at the Colorado River District.
That puts Colorado on track to send the smallest amount of water downstream to Lake Powell in the past 10 years, according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. This could cause shortages to water users in parts of California, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.,,
Closer to home, the Stagecoach and Elkhead reservoirs are on track to be filled. These reservoirs are relatively small, however, which makes them easier to fill.
But unless more snow comes, rural Moffat County is likely to feel the impact.
“If you start the spring with not-very-good soil moisture levels, and then, through April and May, if we don’t get rain to get some soil moisture, you’re that much drier,” Gray said.
For farmers, this could mean a weaker hay crop, as water to irrigate isn’t there. Dry soil also means dry grasses, which are better fuel for wildfire.
For now, residents of Northwest Colorado can kick off their snowshoes and hope to receive more moisture to avoid a drought. The weekend snowstorms helped.
“Statewide snowpack for Colorado approximately went up 5 percent with this last storm,” Stackhouse said in an email. “But that is very preliminary, since we are still collecting and receiving reports with this storm.”
Once again this year, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust and the Colorado Water Conservation Board are collaborating to arrange a release of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to boost lagging flows in the Yampa River under an agreement with dam owner, the Upper Yampa Conservancy District. New this year is the support of The Nature Conservancy.
Last year, conservation releases did not begin until mid-September, but in 2017, with the river already flowing well below normal, water releases from the dam were set at 10 cubic feet per second beginning July 11. But it can’t go on forever this way.
With this year’s release, the role of the Conservation Board, a division of the State Department of Natural Resources, has expanded to include committing to contributing up to $46,692 for water releases. At the same time, the CWCB will undertake the third, and final, approved year to release water into the Yampa. The opportunity cannot be renewed under current law, Water Trust staff attorney Zach Smith said…
This year’s program will forge a new relationship with the Nature Conservancy to carry on the effort when conditions warrant. The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch just east of Hayden straddles the Yampa, and for 2017, the global conservation organization has agreed to bring $50,000 to the effort to purchase water releases out of Stagecoach. It will also explore sustainable funding for future years.
Smith said new efforts to bolster the flows in the river during dry seasons could range from seeking ways for the Nature Conservancy and the Water Trust to collaborate on locating new funding sources to perhaps seeking a water source with long-term legal protection.
Upper Yampa Manager Kevin McBride pointed out it’s only because there is a moderate amount of water storage in the upper reaches of the Yampa that mid-summer conservation releases are possible…
Flows in the Yampa have been supplemented with the participation of the Water Trust in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. The Yampa was flowing at 128 cubic feet per second Monday afternoon, 67 cfs below the median for the date…
Water Trust water resources engineer and former Steamboat resident Mickey O’Hara said the return to healthier natural flows in the Yampa this summer “depends on if, and when the monsoons happen.”
Here’s a report from a tour of Stagecoach Dam from Matt Stensland writing for Steamboat Today. Click through for the cool photo of the drain system from inside the dam. Here’s an excerpt:
It is a careful balancing act at the Stagecoach Dam, where electricity is generated for homes, fish habitat is managed and water is stored for a time when cities, ranchers and industry need it.
Behind the steel door, mineralized sludge covers the concrete walls and incandescent bulbs dimly light the narrow corridor.
These are the guts of the Stagecoach Dam southeast of Steamboat Springs, and it can be a little unnerving knowing that at the other side of the wall, 9,360 pounds of pressure push against each square foot of concrete.
Water drips from the ceiling and falls from drain pipes that collect water from the seeping concrete.
“All dams get water into them,” said Kevin McBride, adding that not having a system to drain the water would create pressure and put the dam’s integrity at risk…
“It’s pretty much paradise here,” said Blankenship, who most recently worked at a coal mine and previously worked in the power house of the USS Enterprise for the U.S. Navy.
Rogers has an electrical engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines.
In addition to monitoring the integrity of the dam, they oversee the hydroelectric power plant, which was named the John Fetcher Power Plant in 1997. He pushed to make electricity generation part of the dam design.
“I think John was a natural conservationist and to have this capability in a project that size and not do it was a bad thing,” said McBride, referring to Fetcher, who died in 2009 at age 97 after being recognized as one of the state’s water leaders.
Above the loud turbine in the power house sits a sign warning people not to stand underneath. That is because above, there is a large, weighted steel lever that will come crashing down if the power generated at the plant needs to immediately come off the grid.
On Tuesday afternoon, the electrical turbine was generating upwards of 500 kilowatts. The system can generate as much as 800 kilowatts, but generation is limited by the amount of water that is flowing into the reservoir.
“The generation, it fluctuates wildly,” said Andi Rossi, the water district’s engineer. “If the flows get too low, we shut down for power generation. In a big wet year, we’ll make a lot of power.”
The water district had been selling the power to Xcel Energy, but Yampa Valley Electric Association began buying the power last year for six cents per kilowatt hour. In 2016, YVEA paid more than $230,000 for the 3.85 million kilowatt hours generated at the dam. That is enough energy to power about 355 homes.
Power generation varies and is dependent on runoff. During the drought year of 2002, only 1.85 million kilowatt hours was produced. When there was abundant snowfall in 2011, 4.7 million kilowatt hours was produced. Since 1999, an average of 3.8 million kilowatt hours has been made each year…
A tower of concrete in the reservoir beside the dam has three gates that allow different temperatures of water to be mixed and sent through a pipe under the dam toward the generator.
From there, the water is either sent through the generator or through a pipe called a jet flow, which shoots water out of the power plant and helps oxygenate the water for fish habitat in the section of river in front of the dam known as the tailwaters.
The area is an angler’s delight and can only be accessed by snowmobile from the Catamount area or by hiking along a county road from Stagecoach State Park.
“It’s phenomenal,” Colorado Park and Wildlife fish biologist Billy Atkinson said.
With improvements by Parks and Wildlife to the river habitat, the area has thrived for fishing, partly because of the dam and reservoir. Relatively warm water released from the dam keeps the section of river from freezing over, and the water from the reservoir is rich in nutrients for the fish.
“The system is very productive,” Atkinson said.
In 2016, 25 percent more people visited the section of river, and 4,000 trout were measured per mile.
Not all tailwaters below dams in Colorado are experiencing similar success.
“It depends on the dam and the operations of the dam,” Atkinson said.
The Routt County Board of Commissioners agreed Dec. 6 to renew its $9,660 commitment in 2017 to the water quality monitoring that has been ongoing in the Upper Yampa River Basin since 2011, with the support of the U.S. Geological Survey and other local agencies…
Under the testing regimen, six different sites on the river are tested four times annually to establish the baseline for a healthy river.
In addition, Cowman said the Yampa has been found to have a temperature impairment, and consistent water quality testing over time will help the entities involved in the testing make the case that they’ve been responsive to that condition when the Colorado Water Quality Control Division next focuses on the Yampa.
Steamboat Today reported Dec. 7, 2015, that some high water temperature readings in the river west of Hayden have the potential to lead to a big shift in how a 57-mile stretch of the river is regulated by the state of Colorado.
After a summer of sparse moisture in 2016, the Yampa, where it enters Stagecoach Reservoir, was flowing at 22 cubic feet per second on Sept. 23, representing an historic low, based on 27 years of record.
Managers of the Stagecoach and Catamount dams timed their seasonal draw-down of their reservoirs to benefit the Yampa downstream. And the city of Steamboat and the Colorado Water Trust both arranged to release stored water to boost the river’s flow by 10 cfs well into autumn.
The cost of the water testing in 2017 is up about 2 percent, with the USGS contributing $14,631, or 30 percent, of the total cost of $48,443. Joining the county in contributing 20 percent of the total are the city of Steamboat Springs and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
The Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District and Morrison Creek Water and Sanitation District are each contributing $2,415, or 5 percent, of the total.
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Zach Smith, Kelly Romero-Heaney, Kevin McBride):
Today, Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District began releasing water purchased by the Colorado Water Trust and its partners to bolster flows in the Yampa River from Stagecoach Reservoir through the City of Steamboat. The purchase of 264 acre-feet, to be released at a rate of 10 cfs for 13 days, provides a gap measure between other local entities’ efforts to keep the Yampa flowing in this dry late summer.
The Yampa River, although forecasted to run at normal streamflow levels this summer, began dropping in the late summer and remained well below average, impacting fish, recreationalists, and water quality. Noting dropping water levels, the City of Steamboat began releasing water from its 552 acre-feet pool in Stagecoach on August 19th to improve water quality – the first time the City has used its water in Stagecoach in such a way. When that water ran out on September 14, Upper Yampa maintained that 10 cfs release by generating hydropower as part of a winter drawdown of Stagecoach it performed earlier than normal to coordinate with this purchase. The Water Trust’s purchase will continue adding water to the Yampa until the Catamount Metro District lowers levels in Lake Catamount to prepare for the winter sometime in early October.
“Watching the local community now lead the streamflow restoration effort on the upper Yampa River is the best outcome for the work the Water Trust has accomplished in the Yampa valley since 2012,” said Zach Smith, staff attorney for the Water Trust.
“A healthy Yampa River is important to our community on so many levels,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney. “The City was fortunate to be able to release its Stagecoach Reservoir water this year to improve water quality in the river.”
The Water Trust’s partners, The Nature Conservancy, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Tri-State Generation & Transmission and the CAN’d Aid Foundation funded the $10,000 for the 2016 purchase and costs related to the transaction.
In 2012, 2013, and 2015 the Water Trust purchased water out of Stagecoach for release to the Yampa River to help maintain healthy stream flows and water quality.
As always, the project wouldn’t be a success without the help of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Catamount Development, Inc., Catamount Metropolitan District, and other cooperative water users.
…the Colorado Water Trust has joined the city of Steamboat Springs, Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Catamount Metropolitan District in ongoing efforts to boost the Yampa’s flows deeper into autumn.
The river was flowing at 60 percent of its median flow for Sept. 23 Friday morning, but it would have been lower this week if not for the fact the city and Upper Yampa Water have been adding flows of 10 cubic feet per second from water stored in Stagecoach Reservoir since August. The city, for the first time ever, began releasing water from its 552-acre-foot pool in the Yampa Aug. 19, and when that ran out Sept. 14, Upper Yampa continued the 10 cfs release by accelerating its seasonal timetable for drawing down the reservoir to accommodate 2017 spring runoff.
Upper Yampa District Engineer Andy Rossi observed at the time: “We are flirting with historically low flows into Stagecoach Reservoir.”
The Yampa was flowing at 22 cubic feet per second just above the reservoir Friday. Based on 27 years of record, that compares to the lowest flow on record for Sept. 23 — 22 cfs in 2002.
However, water district general manager Kevin McBride said the reservoir his agency manages filled to capacity after a very wet spring, allowing the water district to advance its autumn timetable.
The Water Trust announced Sept. 22 that, together with its partners, it will spend $10,000 to purchase another 264-acre feet of water from Stagecoach Reservoir, enough to increase the flows in the Yampa by 10 cubic feet per second for 13 more days. The Water Trust’s purchase will continue adding water to the Yampa until sometime in October, when the Catamount Metro District lowers levels in Lake Catamount to prepare for winter.
Water Trust staff attorney Zach Smith said that the level of cooperation among water managers in the upper Yampa Basin is gratifying for his organization.
“Watching the local community now lead the streamflow restoration effort on the upper Yampa River is the best outcome for the work the Water Trust has accomplished in the Yampa Valley since 2012,” Smith said in a news release.
Water Trust Staff Attorney Zach Smith said Upper Yampa began releasing 12 cubic feet per second from Stagecoach Reservoir on Monday, with the goal of boosting flows in the river up to the decreed instream flow amount of 72.5 cfs. The U.S. Geological Survey reflected that flows had quickly reached that level on Monday before declining slightly on Tuesday.
Smith reported Tuesday that the Lake Catamount Metropolitan District had agreed to pass flows below the Catamount Dam downstream from Stagecoach.
This summer’s water release comes later in the summer than it did in 2012 and 2013, when below average winter snowpack and early spring runoff left the river flowing below historic averages in early July. The hay harvest has been early in 2015 — months earlier, in some cases — than it was in 2014.
This summer’s purchase of 1,185 acre-feet of water is in contrast to 2012, when 4,000 acres was purchased from Stagecoach, translating into about 26 cfs for much of the summer.
The winter of 2014-15 was another low snow year, but above average rainfall has kept the upper Yampa Valley lush and the river at healthy flows through the end of July.
As recently as Aug. 4, the Yampa was flowing above median for the date at 180 cfs, but fell to 110 cfs on Aug. 9. It bumped slightly upward in downtown Steamboat on Tuesday.
The city of Steamboat Springs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Tri-State Transmission and Generation and Catamount Development and the Catamount Metropolitan District also played a role in the latest conservation water release.
The Colorado Water Trust is a private, nonprofit organization that facilitates voluntary, market-based water rights transactions to restore and protect streamflows in Colorado to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems. It also works on physical solutions and provides technical assistance on other projects.
Here’s a post arguing to keep the Yampa River riparian system as a baseline for a healthy river from Susan Bruce writing for the Earth Island Journal. Here’s an excerpt:
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…
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.”
This is the second consecutive year the Colorado Water Trust has leased 4,000 acre-feet of water in Stagecoach Reservoir.
“Last year, we saw that adding water to the Yampa River was of tremendous value not only to the natural environment but also to Steamboat Springs and other communities along the river,” staff attorney for the Colorado Water Trust Zach Smith said in a news release. “We look forward to working with Upper Yampa to create similar benefits again this year.”
The Yampa River at the Fifth Street bridge was flowing at 120 cubic feet per second Tuesday morning, below the median for the date of 181 cfs. Last year, the group’s release bolstered the river by about 26 cfs for most of the summer.
#According to the release, Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Bill Atkinson suggested that releases from Stagecoach Reservoir start at a range of 30 cfs to help with high water temperatures. As part of those water temperature concerns, Atkinson has asked anglers to avoid fishing after noon, when the water temperatures have been reaching the upper 70s.
The Yampa River will get another significant boost this summer when 4,000 acre-feet of water leased by the Colorado Water Trust once again starts to flow out of Stagecoach Reservoir. Water Trust Executive Director Amy Beatie said Thursday that her organization saw the benefits of the release it helped orchestrate for the first time last summer and is eager to repeat it.
“We wanted to keep the river rockin’, and we wanted to make sure all the different uses that benefited from our last release would make it through again this year,” Beatie said before she ticked off a list of beneficiaries that included fisheries, recreation and riparian vegetation. “When you do something like this, there’s not just one factor that benefits.”[…]
At noon Thursday, the Yampa was flowing at 130 cubic feet per second under the Fifth Street bridge. The measurement was nearly 70 cfs below the river’s historic flow for the date…
Kevin McBride, the general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District that is leasing the water to the Water Trust, said the extra flows can help to ensure that there are few or no river closures this year. “If we hadn’t had a record precipitation in April, we would be in a very bad situation,” McBride said. “But it still is a dry year.”[…]
Like it did the first time, the Water Trust’s lease this year will cost about $140,000.
Beatie said her organization learned a lot from the lease program’s inaugural year but said there still are challenges it has to overcome before the releases become reality. “We’re moving water in the West, and anytime you do that, it’s going to be a little bit complicated,” she said.
That summer of 2002, the river “smelled like rotting seaweed,” Van De Carr recalled. “It was a nightmare.”[…]
But 2012 would turn out differently. On Friday, June 29, as if by a miracle, the river started to rise. By 9:30 that night, it was flowing at 71 cfs.
Something had happened that had never happened before in Colorado: an intervention to spare a river – and its dependents – from decimation during a drought.
Back in the spring, when the skimpy mountain snowpack spelled disaster for so many of Colorado’s rivers and streams, the non-profit Colorado Water Trust (CWT) issued a statewide request for water. Anyone willing to sell or temporarily lease water was encouraged to contact the CWT. If the water could help a river weather the drought, the CWT would consider buying it.
One answer to the call came from Kevin McBride, director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District in Steamboat Springs. McBride had just had a contract with a customer fall through, leaving 4,000 acre-feet (1.3 billion gallons) of Yampa River water unclaimed in Stagecoach Reservoir. For the right price, McBride was willing to lease that water to the Colorado Water Trust.
“We rocketed that (project) to the top of our priorities,” said Amy Beatie, Executive Director of the water trust, based in Denver.
“It looked like a system that was ecologically going to crash,” Beatie said. “The river was starting to crater.”
So for a total of $140,000, or $35 per acre-foot, CWT leased the water district’s spare water. McBride had set the price, based on what he knew his board would approve. In that part of the West, the cost was very reasonable.
On June 28, the leased water began flowing out of Stagecoach Reservoir into the Yampa. The extra flow would directly benefit seven crucial miles downstream of the reservoir, as well as the river’s course through Steamboat and beyond. The idea was to keep the river as healthy as possible through the summer, by releasing about 26 cfs a day into September.
Along the way, the leased water provided multiple benefits. It generated extra hydropower at the Stagecoach Reservoir. It provided aesthetic and recreation benefits in Steamboat, helping businesses like Backdoor Sports avoid tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenues. Further downstream of the reach targeted for the lease, some irrigators even got more water for their crops, a welcome boost during a drought and dire economic times.
“The purpose of the lease is to maximize the beneficial use of water in Colorado,” Beatie explained. “These incidental benefits make this a win-win-win-win. “
Besides rescuing a river and its dependents, the Yampa drought-lease set a precedent in Colorado. It was the first use of a 2003 state law, passed in part in response to the devastating 2002 drought, that allows farmers, ranchers, water districts or other entities to temporarily loan water to rivers and streams in times of need.
The release started at about 1 p.m. Friday and should boost the Yampa River’s flows by about 50 cubic feet per second, McBride said. Low steamflows at the Craig plant triggered the release of water, which is used in the power plant’s cooling operations.
Division 6 State Water Engineer Erin Light said the Stagecoach release is the result of an agreement reached with Tri-State that stipulates a flow that must be met to satisfy senior rights holders downstream of the Craig power plant. She said her agency gathered data on what diversions are occurring and what ones are senior to Tri-State to reach a number of 50 cfs natural flow that would avoid a call on the river.
Tri-State “can pump the river dry, but that would force a call downstream,” Light said. “Rather than force a call on the river and its tributaries, we’d rather make this decision.”
From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):
The dim outlook for the Yampa River in this summer of drought just got a little brighter, thanks to a water deal announced this week by the Colorado Water Trust, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board…
Under a law passed back in 2003 in response to the last serious statewide drought, the water trust will lease 4,000 acre feet of water stored in Stagecoach Reservoir to try and sustain some flows in the Yampa, in the worst-case scenario potentially preventing the river from going dry.
The water will be released strategically to meet hydropower demands and for streamflow benefits below the reservoir. The water trust has been working on the short-term water leasing pilot program, Request for Water 2012, for about three months…
The water trust will lease the Yampa River water for about $35 per acre foot, for a total of $140,000…
“When we saw the CWT Request for Water 2012, we thought it would be a great opportunity for collaboration in meeting multiple needs during this drought year, and the Upper Yampa Board is fully supportive of meeting multiple needs,” said district manager Kevin McBride.
Two water agencies and a conservation organization have engineered a lease allowing 4,000-acre feet of cold water from Stagecoach Reservoir to be gradually released in an effort to revive the river.
The Colorado Water Trust announced Monday it had reached an agreement with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns the reservoir, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board to lease the water and send it downstream.
“We’ll start making releases when we can ensure it will supply the benefit we hope it will,” Colorado Water Trust staff attorney Zach Smith said.
His organization will spend $35 per acre-foot to lease the water from Stagecoach, or about $140,000, Smith confirmed. The agreement marks the first-ever implementation of a 2003 statute designed to protect Colorado’s rivers in times of drought.
If the Trust were to release the water steadily, it is estimated it would generate a flow of about 26.5 cubic feet per second from July 1 through the middle of September — perhaps not enough to restore recreation in the form of tubing on the town stretch of the river, but enough to protect the resource. The Yampa was flowing at 69 cfs late Monday afternoon compared to a median flow for the date of 1,000 cfs.
The [Yampa] river was flowing at 190 cubic feet per second Monday morning at the Fifth Street Bridge, according to a monitoring station operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. The historic mean for the river on Aug. 23 is 116 cfs. “The rain that we have been having and the moisture from the monsoon weather has really kicked in,” said Kent Vertrees, a recreational representative on the Yampa-White River Basin Roundtable. “There isn’t a fear of a closure of the river to tubers because it’s been so full.”[…]
Steamboat has received 2.03 inches of precipitation so far this month, compared to a historic average of 1.54 inches. Local weather spotter Art Judson attributes the increase in rainfall to monsoonal moisture, slow-moving thunderstorms and chance. “It’s as much chance as anything,” he said. “What makes this warm season different is that we have had three separate events where we received more than 1 inch of rain in less than 24 hours. That’s unusual for here.”
While the increase in rainfall is one of the factors keeping tubes from scraping the bottom of the river, water being released from Stagecoach Reservoir continues to keep the Yampa flowing faster than usual. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District is releasing an average of 140 cfs of water into the river from the reservoir because of a construction project that will increase water storage there by nearly 10 percent. Conservancy District General Manager Kevin McBride said the discharge is expected to continue until mid-September.