The Yampa River snakes 250 miles across northwestern Colorado, primarily in Routt and Moffat Counties. Its watershed encompasses approximately 8,000 square miles in Colorado and Wyoming; in Colorado, the river flows through Craig, Hayden, Milner, and Steamboat Springs, among other communities. The explorer John C. Frémont coined the name Yampa in 1844, after Snake Indians in the region provided him yampah root, or Perideridia gairdneri, for food.
The Yampa is regionally important for irrigation, recreation, and sustaining adjacent ecosystems. It is home to rare and endangered fish species. Compared to many other rivers in the American West, much of the Yampa River’s natural ecosystem remains relatively undisturbed, both biologically and hydrologically. Flow alterations and human modification of the environment along its banks has nonetheless resulted in some degradation. Protection of the river’s biodiversity and ecosystems will help ensure that the Yampa remains a healthy aquatic resource for future generations.
The Yampa River starts high in the Flat Tops and the Gore Range of the Rocky Mountains, with its headwater streams originating at roughly 11,000 feet. At 7,833 feet, the Bear River and Phillips Creek join near the town of Yampa to form the Yampa River. Running north through Steamboat Springs, the Yampa then turns west and rolls down to Craig in Moffat County. Its major tributaries include the Elk River, the Williams Fork, and its largest branch stream, the Little Snake River. The mouth of the Yampa opens in Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument, where it joins the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado.
The Yampa’s flow shifts seasonally, depending on precipitation and the previous winter’s snowpack. Snowmelt fills its channels in the spring, typically peaking in May. Water levels drop through the summer and into the fall, reaching annual lows between August and October. Streamflow in May 2015 beat the previous record held in 1920; under the Fifth Street Bridge in Steamboat Springs, the stream ran at 2,970 cubic feet per second (CFS). The Yampa is the only stream of its size in the Upper Colorado River Basin whose seasonal flow levels so closely resemble those of its predevelopment period. With upward of 80 percent of the state’s water coming from snowmelt, warmer weather and drought may potentially impact the water supply.
The Yampa’s natural movement shapes its riverine ecosystems, which support a variety of aquatic and riparian plant communities and wildlife, including the Colorado pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius), the humpback chub (Gila cypha), the bonytail chub (Gila elegans), and the razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus), all of which are listed as endangered species. The Colorado River cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki pleuriticus), a possible addition to the federally endangered species list, also swims the Yampa’s waters.
Even though riparian areas occupy only a small portion of the Colorado landscape, they sustain a large portion of the state’s wildlife. Pine and fir forests line the upper reaches of the Yampa, while cottonwoods and willow trees dot its lower reaches. Migratory sandhill cranes, nesting blue herons, bald eagles, and other birds are found near the river, as well as elk, deer, antelope, and other big game species. Beaver colonize many parts of the watershed as well.
The Yampa River has historically provided water to Native Americans as well as farmers and ranchers. The Snake people—which includes the Bannock and Shoshone tribes—and the White River Ute, comprised of Parianuche and Yampa (Yamparika, Yampatika) Utes, drank from the river, hunted in the Yampa valley, and gathered food and raw materials for shelter. In the early nineteenth century, fur trappers significantly reduced the area’s beaver populations. The first white settlers in the watershed were the homesteaders and ranchers who founded Steamboat Springs in 1874. Ranching flourished over the next half-century, soon joined by coal mining and tourism. Today, ranching, tourism, and coal mining are still major enterprises in the valley, along with agriculture (beans, beets, corn, lettuce, onions, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, and tomatoes).
Commercial use of the river includes tubing, rafting, canoeing, fishing, stand up paddle boarding, and kayaking. While these activities bring in a significant amount of tourism revenue, they are often accompanied by littering, air pollution from vehicles, the introduction of exotic species or sport fishes, and habitat destruction. Agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, as well as pollution from industrial activities such coal mining and oil and gas development also threaten the river’s health. As the Yampa is the lifeblood of the regional economy, federal, state, and local organizations have overseen many conservation measures since the mid-twentieth century.
In the early 1950s, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed two dams within Dinosaur National Monument, one of which would have been constructed immediately downstream at the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers in Echo Park. The Echo Park Dam Controversy pitted those who wanted the river canyons of Dinosaur preserved as wilderness and for whitewater recreation against those who wanted to develop hydropower on the rivers of the American West. The proposed dam was defeated by a coalition of conservation groups—most notably the Sierra Club—along with local river runners and concerned citizens across the country, and has been widely recognized as a major milestone in the development of the modern environmental movement.
In 1966 the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District was created to undertake water conservation projects to ensure that the river provides enough water to farmers and ranchers. The district built two major water storage facilities: Yamcolo Reservoir and Stagecoach Reservoir. Yamcolo Reservoir was completed in 1980 and stands 109 feet high; the US Forest Service manages its recreation area. Stagecoach Reservoir, completed in 1988 and standing 145 feet high, generates 800 kilowatts of power; Colorado Parks & Wildlife manages Stagecoach State Park. The water serves irrigation, municipal, ranching, and industrial uses downstream. These water projects store runoff from winter snows, discharging the water into the stream to augment the Yampa’s low late-season flows. These water projects don’t necessarily alter the overall annual average flow of the river, but they even it out so that there is rarely too little or too much water in the river for agricultural purposes. The riparian ecosystems that depend on seasonal flooding, however, are damaged by the absence of seasonally high water.
On a floodplain seventeen miles west of Steamboat Springs, The Nature Conservancy’s Yampa River Preserve protects 8,800 acres of wetlands along a ten-mile stretch of the river. Under natural conditions, floods erode the riverbanks and deposit new sediments, causing the Yampa to shift to new channels. Channel shifting distributes soil, nutrients, and water to broad swaths of wetlands along the banks and provides food and habitat to plants and animals. The preserve ensures that this historic flood process will continue, thereby protecting the adjacent riparian ecosystem, which depends on these floods. The long-term goal of the Conservancy is to provide conservation-based alternatives to traditional land management practices. It pursues this through conservation easements, assistance with management plans, and cooperative stewardship groups such as Friends of the Yampa.
Though the river remains undammed, the Yampa’s water continues to be a desirable resource for thirsty communities on Colorado’s Eastern Slope. The Yampa Pumpback project, a proposal developed by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, would store 2,000 cubic feet of the Yampa’s annual flow near Maybell. This water would then be pumped 250 miles to Fort Collins and other cities to support agriculture and the growing population along Colorado’s Front Range. Environmentalists oppose the authorization of the Yampa Pumpback project because it would negatively affect the free-flowing character of the Yampa, as well as wildlife habitat and recreation. Residents of Colorado’s Western Slope also oppose the project; they would prefer to keep the Yampa’s water for further economic development west of the Divide, making the Yampa a site of continuing political controversy in the twenty-first century.
As the debate over the pumpback project illustrates, the great number of purposes the Yampa serves jeopardizes its ability to serve any one of them. The river’s many users must work together to ensure that people and the environment continue to benefit from a river so vital to northwest Colorado.