The state of Colorado faced severe drought conditions in 2012. By late spring, flows in the upper Yampa River near Steamboat Springs were dropping rapidly and the river was approaching a critical low flow threshold that threatened water quality, recreation, and fish and wildlife populations. By late June, the river’s flow had dropped to just 5 percent of normal for that time of year, and there was concern about a repeat of 2002 when the last severe drought closed fishing and tubing, decimated fisheries, and severely impacted the local recreation economy.
BEF partnered with the Colorado Water Trust and National Geographic to support a WRC project that restored significant flow to the Yampa River during the critical summer period, staving off another recreation closure and protecting the native and sport fisheries.
The solution created by the Colorado Water Trust and supported as a WRC project utilized an innovative drought response leasing program to purchase, release and protect water from an upstream reservoir in order to increase flows throughout the upper Yampa River during a critical time of need. In total, the project restored 4,000 acre-feet of water to the river during the summer of 2012 and added approximately 26 cubic feet per second of flow to a river that, prior to the release of new water, had dropped to a relative trickle of just 44 cubic feet per second. The restored flow was protected through an initial 5.5 mile reach of the river near the town of Steamboat Springs, with additional instream flow benefits accruing for over 60 miles downstream.
The 2012 Yampa flow restoration project represents the very first administrative approval of an instream flow transaction in Colorado, and as such sets a precedent for using water in new ways to balance the needs of humans and the environment—especially in times of drought. The robust sport fishery and tubing business includes three local fishing shops and extensive fish guiding for tourists, so the ability of the river to maintain growing populations of brown and rainbow trout is viewed by many as a critical economic benefit, and both local guides and biologists had predicted a possible fisheries crash with the looming low flows and drought conditions. Furthermore, tubing on the river had been closed early in June, but with the restored flows made possible by this project (and some summer rains), the river opened again for tubing. Articles in the local newspaper indicate that the improved flows made possible by this project prevented significant financial hardship for the local economy.
The Yampa River is also home to one of only two native populations of Whitefish in the state of Colorado. Because populations of Whitefish were significantly affected in the 2002 drought, area biologists expected the looming 2012 drought to have adverse consequences for the whitefish as well as for beavers, otter, trout, and myriad bird species. In the end, this project prevented major impacts to fish and wildlife.
* Project supports voluntary transactions to change, reduce or stop water use – either temporarily or permanently – to protect or restore water for environmental benefit
** This resource has been reviewed and found to meet the BEF Flow Program Certification Criteria for Evaluating Proposals to Secure Environmental Flows by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.