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#10 – The Yampa River: Threatened Paddling Classics

The target of potential diversions, the Yampa is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Colorado River basin

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday for the next ten weeks, Canoe & Kayak will highlight a classic paddling run that’s currently endangered by dams, diversions or development. The Yampa River is our 2015 pick for the world’s tenth most-threatened run. 

By Eugene Buchanan

The cowboy was clearly in a pickle. Wearing jeans, chaps, a tattered cowboy hat and red bandana, he waved us down from the bank mid-way through a five-day high water trip down Yampa Canyon. He needed to get across the river, he said, to round up cattle stranded by the early season runoff on the other side. So we did the neighborly thing and offered him an unconventional helping hand. We tied his horse off to our dory and watched him swim alongside us as we ferried the cowboy across. We then spent the next three hours kayak-herding 30 head of cattle back across the river in a scene best described as William Nealy Meets City Slickers.

In 25 years of running the river, memories like these hold the river as close to my heart as the cowboy's bandana was to his. From its birth high in the Flat Tops of Colorado to its junction with the Green 250 miles later, it's billed as the last major free-flowing tributary to the Colorado, as unbridled as the wild horses in nearby Brown's Park, which used to house such gangs as Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch. It changes from a trickle every fall to a raging torrent in the spring, cycling through every level in between.

Courtesy Kent Vertrees/Yampa River Awareness Project
Yampa River flooding in 2011. Photo courtesy Kent Vertrees/Yampa River Awareness Project

As a recreational resource, it supports canoe, SUP and kayak schools, rafting operations, fishing concessions, and even a thriving tubing business exposing Triple Crown softball players to the power of a river's serenity. For paddling, it serves up a Class II-III town run through Steamboat Springs, whose C-hole was the basis for the city's Recreational Inchannel Diversion (RICD) water right in 2003; wildlife-lined floats through the Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch as well as Duffy and Juniper Canyons; and the crown jewel wilderness sections through Class IV-V Cross Mountain Canyon — a seven-mile-long incision funneling the river's 7,660-square-mile watershed into a chasm so fierce that ABC Sports once featured it on American Sportsmen — and iconic Yampa Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument before the river's confluence with the Green. Float it and it's easy to see why late Sierra Club executive director David Brower fought so hard to save the river from the Echo Park Dam in 1956, marking one of the conservation world's most marquee victories.

echo-park yampa-river green-river
Kayaker at the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers where the Echo Park Dam was defeated in the 1950s. Photo Will Stauffer-Norris

The river also serves agricultural interests, two major coal mines, seven towns, snowmaking for the Steamboat Ski Resort and fulfills the state's water obligations to downstream users as outlined in the Colorado River's 1922 Water Compact. Its natural hydrograph, largely unaffected by several small dams near its headwaters, supports such endangered species as the humpback chub (Gila cypha), bonytail (G. elegans), Colorado pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius), and razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus), all endemic to the Yampa and reliant on its peak flows for spawning and nursery habitat. “The Yampa is an incredible resource,” says Dinosaur National Monument Superintendent Mark Foust. "As the last natural-flowing, major tributary of the entire Colorado River system, it preserves an amazing array of plant and animal communities along with the natural cycles they depend upon."

But not everything is honky-dory. As the last river basin in the state with significant amounts of unappropriated water, the Yampa faces threats from other users in the sun-drenched West, from growing Front Range municipalities to oil and mining operations. All this is prompting what could be called modern-day showdown at the Yampa Corral.

With drought and increased demand straining Colorado Basin water supplies, the river's future is far from certain. In 2013, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper ordered the state to develop its first-ever water plan to manage water sustainably for the future. The draft plan, released in late 2014, protects the Yampa for its fish and wildlife, recreation and agriculture. Conservation group American Rivers is calling on Hickenlooper to protect the watershed as part of the final plan to be issued this December. "The wild Yampa is incredibly important," says Matt Rice, AR's director of Colorado Basin programs. "It shows that we can sustain vibrant agriculture while conserving endangered fish and supporting recreation. We need to find solutions that will safeguard the Yampa for generations to come."

But there's an elephant, or at least water buffalo, in the room as well. "The unanswered question among water experts is whether the Yampa will be tapped to meet the rest of the state's water needs," says Kent Vertrees, a raft guide and 10-year member of the Yampa/White/Green River Roundtable, which recommends management plans for the basin. "You have to wonder how long it will be before a trans-mountain diversion is proposed. All things are pointing that way with drought and growth and the knowledge that there's a supply gap." By comparison, the upper Colorado River already has well over half of its average annual flow diverted across the continental divide to the Front Range.

Yampa River near the Colorado-Utah border. Photo courtesy Kent Vertrees/Yampa River Awareness Project
Yampa River in northwestern Colorado. Photo courtesy Kent Vertrees/Yampa River Awareness Project

Indeed, the Yampa has already found itself in the crosshairs. In 2007, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District proposed a $4 billion Pumpback project that would've brought 20 percent of the river's high-water flow from Maybell to the Front Range, effectively de-watering the canyon's historic highs. Two years later, Shell Oil filed for a water right to pump 8 percent of peak runoff into a 1,000-acre reservoir. introducing another player to the water table. The proposed Million Green River Pumpback project would pull water out of Flaming Gorge on the Green and deliver it to Greeley and Ft. Collins on the Front Range, a senior water right that could lead to a call for Yampa water.

As further testament to the timeliness of the river's protection efforts, just this January American Rivers worked with Google to release its Google Maps Street View project on the Yampa, marking only the second river street view its ever created behind its inaugural project on the Grand Canyon. It details a virtual float down the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument, a stretch that sees nearly 3,200 paddlers annually between 300 private and 300 commercial permits. "Hopefully that will help call attention to how important a resource it is," says Soren Jespersen, president of local nonprofit advocacy group Friends of the Yampa.

There's additional cavalry as well. In 2010, the BLM found three sections of the Yampa totaling 22 miles suitable for Wild & Scenic designation, including the sections from Williams Fork to Milk Creek, Milk Creek to Duffy Tunnel, and heralded Cross Mountain Canyon. The Governor's water plan draft also recognizes the value of its free-flowing character. "There needs to be a balance struck to support Colorado's future water needs, the needs of the basin's water-users and the preservation of rare species that the river fosters," says Vertrees. "Keeping water in the river can satisfy recreational users, downstream users and endangered wildlife. It can be the cushion for Colorado's compact obligations."

And as the hitch-hiking cowboy we helped out on the river knows, there's certainly value in being wild and free.

Watch a short film about the Yampa River.

–Explore the Yampa River in Google Street View.

–Check back to CanoeKayak.com every Tuesday as we release the list of the world’s ten most threatened classic paddling runs.

 

Yampa River near the Colorado-Utah border. Photo courtesy Kent Vertrees/Yampa River Awareness Project
Yampa River near the Colorado-Utah border. Photo courtesy Kent Vertrees/Yampa River Awareness Project