It’s the last wild and free river that drains into the Colorado, BUT—WITH MORE INTENSE DEMANDS ON THE STATE’S WATER RESOURCES BUILDING—CAN IT stay that way?

A snowflake falls as “champagne powder” just west of the Continental Divide near Steamboat Springs. In time, a skier schusses over it, flinging it into the air. Come spring, as the sun rises higher in the Broncos-blue sky, that snowflake joins its brethren and melts off, carried down an out-of-bounds backcountry run and into Fish Creek.

Soon, our snowflake, now a water drop, careens off Fish Creek Falls (site of that famed Coors ad), before it floats under kayakers navigating a popular class IV-V whitewater run. Then it enters the Yampa River, the last remaining free-flowing tributary to the Colorado River system. There its future, like a student fresh out of high school, is wide open.

Before its ultimate fate is sealed, it will provide habitat for endangered fish and support a thriving trout population. Then it might be diverted to help ranchers irrigate hay fields, cool pipelines at coal mines and power plants, or perhaps make it unmolested through Dinosaur National Monument and into the river’s confluence with the Green River. There, with any luck, it will bypass the shale and oil-pump operations near Desolation and Gray canyons to satisfy users in other states downstream.

Welcome to the plight of Colorado’s water, and in particular that of the Yampa, which drains a 7,660-square-mile watershed from its birthplace high in the Flat Top Wilderness Area (a place which inspired Forest Service employee Arthur Carhart to champion today’s wilderness preservation movement) to its junction with the Green River 250 miles later. The Yampa is the last river basin in the state with unappropriated water and the last major free-flowing tributary to the Colorado. It changes from a trickle every fall to a raging torrent in the spring, cycling through every level in between.

In the Crosshairs

Despite its natural hydrograph, not everything is hunky-dory in Yampaland. With tunnels, pumpbacks, reservoirs and more already siphoning Western Slope water to the growing Front Range, and drought-ridden states downstream clambering for their share, there’s a bounty on its snowmelt. While the river is as unbridled as the wild horses in nearby Brown’s Park, which used to house such outlaws as Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, it 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 a modern-day showdown at the Yampa Corral.

Things have gotten so out of hand, in fact, that Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is rowing furiously forward with the state’s first-ever water plan to manage Colorado’s water sustainably for the future. With a draft plan released in late 2014, and the final plan to be issued in December 2015, he isn’t about to tread water with regards to protecting our state’s greatest resource. But the Yampa is squarely in the crosshairs. While the draft water plan calls for protecting the Yampa for its fish and wildlife, recreation and agriculture, there’s an elephant, or 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.”

Indeed, the Yampa has already fended off feuds for its lifeblood. 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 eight 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 also lead to future calls for Yampa water.

Keeping It Wild

Conservation group American Rivers is one of several organizations calling on Hickenlooper to protect the Yampa watershed as part of the final plan, especially with drought straining other Colorado Basin water supplies.

“Keeping the Yampa wild 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.”

As a recreational resource, the river 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 might into a chasm so fierce that ABC Sports once featured it on “The American Sportsman”—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 president David Brower fought so hard to save the river from the Echo Park Dam in 1956, marking one of the conservation world’s marquee victories.

The river also serves agricultural interests, two major coal mines, seven towns, snowmaking for the Steamboat Ski Resort and it fulfills the state’s water obligations to downstream users as outlined in the Colorado River’s 1922 Water Compact. Its hydrograph 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 system, it preserves an amazing array of plant and animal communities along with the natural cycles they depend upon.”   

There’s additional cavalry as well. In 2010, the Bureau of Land Management 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. But perhaps the best thing going for the Yampa is that the governor’s draft water plan recognizes the value of the river’s 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.”

As the region’s stallions and even its former outlaws know, there’s certainly value in being wild and free.

Eugene Buchanan is the editor of PaddlingLife.net and the former publishser of Paddler.