Colorado's water demands conflict with efforts to preserve the Yampa River
By Susan Bruce
The Tiger Wall above Warm Springs Rapids on the Yampa River got its stripes by trickling water and oxidation. It's tradition for boaters to kiss the wall for good luck before entering the rapids downstream. (Scott Willoughby, The Denver Post)
* The Colorado River is the lifeline of the West and it's running dry
Colorado is blessed with a national treasure, the Yampa River — the last major free-flowing river in the seven-state Colorado River Basin. Following an ancient course little altered by man, the Yampa 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 snow melt, 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, a major feeder of the Colorado River.
Water drives Colorado's economy and quality of life, and we are a thirsty state, with a population expected to double by 2050, and a projected 25 percent gap between 2050 needs and current sources and supply.
Winter snowmelt provides 80 percent of the state's water. The past two decades have been Colorado's warmest on record dating back to the 1890s. Climate change and increased drought may hasten the impact of the water supply gap.
Ergo, a dilemma as challenging as the Yampa's swirling rapids: keeping the river intact to preserve its unique natural state, versus damming, diverting and pumping its water to help meet the pressing water needs of communities nearby and far away.
Gov. John Hickenlooper's directive in May to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to create a first-time Colorado Water Plan by 2015 will certainly put the Yampa, with the second-largest watershed in the state, under the spotlight as an option to alleviate the water gap. Or, the plan drafters may determine the river is more valuable left wild.
In early June, I rafted down the Yampa for five days with a group of conservationists, water managers and recreation outfitters to explore perspectives on the value and future of the river. Friends of the Yampa, American Rivers, and O.A.R.S., the largest rafting company in the world, hosted the trip.
The wild and unique aspect of the Yampa is its unimpeded flow, in particular the extensive spring flooding that washes away sediment, depositing it further downstream, giving the river its brownish hue. This "river dance" helps establish new streamside forests, wetlands and sandy beaches and shallows, supporting species that have adapted over millions of years to its cycle. By late fall, the river barely covers the riverbed in some stretches.
The Yampa's flow also boosts the distribution and absorption of critical nutrients, such as nitrogen and organic matter, improving water quality.
Efforts to dam the Yampa go back to the proposed construction of Echo Park Dam, which Congress vetoed in 1952, bowing to a legendary campaign and groundswell of public outcry led by the Sierra Club's David Brower. Many attribute the campaign and its success as the start of America's environmental movement. But in a compromise move he later regretted, Brower supported the construction of two other dams: the Glen Canyon on the Colorado and the Flaming Gorge on the Green.
The Green and Yampa rivers used to have similar flows and ecosystems. Today, the Yampa's riverbanks differ little from John Wesley Powell's description of the area he explored in 1869 as "set with willows, boxelders, and cottonwood groves." However, the construction of the Flaming Gorge Dam in 1962 modified the Green's hydrograph, reducing sediment flow by over half and tapering its seasonal fluctuations to a slower, more consistent flow, opening the way for invasive species to crowd out native ones.
Healthy copses of shade-providing cottonwoods line the Yampa River canyon, but the seedlings struggle to take root on the sediment-poor and longer-inundated Green. These conditions have proved ideal for invasive tamarisk trees to dominate the Green's riverbanks and islands.
A water hog, the shrubby tamarisk sucks up precious soil moisture and, while the trees have migrated to the Yampa and throughout the Southwest, they are particularly dense and harmful on the Green. Along riverbanks it's easy to spot tiny, light-green tamarisk beetles imported from Asia and introduced in 2004 to thin the rapidly encroaching trees.
Fish on the Yampa, including the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker, have adapted over millennia to its relatively warm waters and rich sediment.
The Green's loss of sediment and colder water due to the Flaming Gorge Dam threatened fish spawning, but modifications to the dam have produced a more natural flow and temperature, improving conditions for native species and non-native cold water trout introduced as a sport fishery.
A geological tableau of a billion years is captured in the Yampa's ochre, white, rust and tiger-striped canyon walls. Layers of ocean and land eras smash, ripple and ooze in myriad formations. Petroglyphs and pictographs by Fremont Indians who inhabited the canyon 800 to 1,200 years ago would have been totally covered by the higher water level if Echo Park Dam had been built. The "yampa," or "wild carrot," was a favorite staple of the Fremont and their successors, the Ute, hence the river's name.
Another way the Yampa serves the community is through recreation. Colorado chose conservation of the Yampa River Basin as one of two key state projects in President Barack Obama's America's Great Outdoors initiative, which provides federal funds to each state to determine the best investments in the nation to support a healthy, active population; conserve wildlife and working lands; and create travel, tourism and outdoor-recreation jobs across the country.
Contributing more than $150 million to Colorado's economy, the rafting industry has a strong voice at the table when it comes to the Yampa's future. While acknowledging that damming the Yampa would provide a more consistent flow over a longer season, O.A.R.S. founder and owner George Wendt speaks for most outfitters who would rather see the Yampa retain its natural state.
John Sanderson, director of conservation science at The Nature Conservancy, prefers rafting the Yampa over the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. "Part of the joy for me is with the Yampa I never know what to expect. Nature makes those decisions, and it constantly surprises and delights. In the Grand Canyon, the hand of man and consistent flow make it less exciting. Plus, the biodiversity on the Yampa is truly extraordinary and worth protecting for my daughter and her children."
Exploring ways to meet future water needs, Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in 2006 studied building a reservoir near Maybell, and pumping water from the Yampa via pipeline and tunnel to another reservoir in Fort Collins for municipal and agricultural use on the Front Range. The utility has not pursued the initiative further due to concerns over its cost (as much as $5 billion) and potential environmental impact.
The oil and gas industry is another consumer of Colorado water. In 2010, Shell Oil shelved plans to pump about 8 percent of the Yampa's high-water flow to fill a 1,000-acre reservoir citing a slowdown of its oil-shale development program. But oil- and gas-permit applications in the state are multiplying. Some hydro experts believe that the impact of drilling would be greater on water quality than quantity due to the potential seeping of chemicals into water sources.
So far, the Yampa has avoided a major trans-basin diversion to the Front Range, but the pressure is heating up as Colorado's population swells and agricultural lands become dryer. A major source of income to Coloradans, agriculture consumes some 85 percent of our water.
For the second year in a row, in an innovative move to help Mother Nature, Colorado Water Trust has leased water from Stagecoach Reservoir (an upstream dam that doesn't significantly impact the Yampa's natural flow) and sent it downstream to combat threats to the Yampa's ecology due to recent drought.
Bolstering conservationists' desire to keep the Yampa intact for environmental and recreational reasons is the argument that the Yampa's full flow helps meet Colorado's legal obligations to provide water to the seven states within the Colorado Basin and to Mexico.
Options under discussion to protect the Yampa include an instream flow appropriation by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and a Wild and Scenic 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."
But what to do about the water gap? The difficult decisions confronting Colorado communities to balance ecological benefits and commercial and municipal needs are both an old and modern resource predicament — and similarly faced by communities around the world.
All participants on the rafting trip agreed that smart land and water use, and reducing reservoir evaporation, must be critical components of meeting our water needs. Water, after all, is a finite resource.