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Colorado’s Yampa River Gets a Lift for Second Consecutive Summer

The Yampa River meanders through farm country in northwestern Colorado. Photo by Cheryl Zook, National Geographic
The Yampa River meanders through ranch country in northwestern Colorado. Photo by Cheryl Zook, National Geographic

Once again, an innovative water management tool is coming to the aid of the Yampa River, a beautiful headwater tributary in the Colorado River Basin that flows through western Colorado ranch country and the tourist town of Steamboat Springs.

Last week, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District signed an agreement with the Colorado Water Trust to lease 4,000 acre-feet (1.3 billion gallons) of water stored in its Stagecoach Reservoir in order to boost the river’s flow during the summer.

The District began releasing water to the Yampa earlier this week.

The lease was made possible by a Colorado state law passed in 2003 that allows farmers, ranchers, water districts or other entities to loan water to rivers and streams in times of need.  The non-profit Colorado Water Trust, based in Denver, serves as a kind of broker between the water users and the river.

The water lease got a trial run on the Yampa last year, when in late June the river was flowing at just 5 percent of normal.  With the river at risk of crashing ecologically, the lease boosted its flow in the nick of time, safeguarding the native whitefish population and allowing tubing and other river-dependent businesses to re-open.

(Read my post and see a photo gallery of the Yampa and the summer 2012 lease, or watch our video.  Disclaimer: National Geographic and its partner the Bonneville Environmental Foundation helped fund the 2012 lease.)

On July 23, the day the 2013 lease got underway, the river was flowing at about two-thirds of normal. In contrast to last summer, the flow level appears high enough to sustain fish and recreation.

But Billy Atkinson, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, expressed concern about the river’s temperature.  It was climbing toward 80 degrees (F) in the afternoons, high enough to stress fish and the river ecosystem.  Atkinson suggested that using the leased water to boost flow could bring the water temperature down to safer levels.

The success of last year’s lease for the Yampa, the first to support instream flows in Colorado, helped pave the way for this second lease, as well as an additional water loan this summer to boost flows on the Fraser River, a 32-mile long tributary of the Colorado River.

The Frasier gets diverted and tunneled through the Rockies to supply water to Denver, dewatering the river during dry summer months. If, as expected, it drops to harmful levels this summer, the lease will kick in and lift the Fraser’s flows.

With climate scientists predicting higher temperatures and more drought in the Colorado River Basin and much of the West, innovative management tools like these water leases can help ensure that rivers –and those who depend on them  – get some help during tough times.

Help restore water to the Colorado River by joining Change the Course.  Sign up online or text ‘River’ to 77177.

Special thanks to Silk and Coca-Cola, Charter Sponsors for Change the Course. Additional funding generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.