Free Flows the Yampa

img_5230_fixThe cowboy was clearly in a pickle. We had stumbled upon him after rounding a corner during a high-water river trip through the Yampa Canyon, and he needed help to get him and his horse across the river. The only neighborly thing to do was pull over and lend a hand.

His cattle, it seemed, had crossed the river during winter, and the spring runoff had left his herd stranded on the other side. So we tied the horse to our dory, ferried them both across, and spent the next three hours herding his cows back across in our kayaks. He’d round them up and heyaw! them into the water, then we’d peel out Blue Angels-style in our kayaks and nose them with our bows in the right direction.

It’s hundreds of memories like these, stretched along the Yampa’s 250 miles, that hold the river as close to my heart as that cowboy’s horse is to his. The Yampa, which runs from its origins in the Flat Tops to its confluence with the Green, is billed as the last major free-flowing tributary to the Colorado. It changes from a trickle during drought years to a raging torrent in spring, and cycles through every level in between. And it’s as unbridled as the wild horses in Brown’s Park, which once played host to Butch, Sundance and the nefarious Hole in the Wall Gang.

As a recreational resource, the river supports canoe and kayak schools, rafting operations, anglers and even a thriving tubing scene. The river hosts seven towns, acres of agricultural interests, endangered fish species and even snowmaking operations for a world-class ski resort. But like other free-flowing rivers, especially those in the arid West, the Yampa often gets caught in the crossfire of Western politics.

Because the Yampa is the last major river basin in the state that still harbors unappropriated water, everyone from mining operations to municipalities has set their sights on its bounty, prompting what is leading to a showdown at the Yampa Corral.

Colorado’s water-right and river-navigation laws—if the water’s not spoken for, it’s yours if you can put it to “beneficial” use—run a course as complicated as the river’s lower canyons. Landowners can own both banks, and even the river bottom, but not the water coursing downstream. Riddled with fences and no trespassing signs, the upper Yampa is lined with many a landowner intent on protecting his/her property.

River runners and fly anglers know this better than anyone. There are some sections that are just plain off limits. Fortunately, there are also some river advocates who are just plain off their rockers.

Consider the exploits of my friend Pete Van De Carr, who owns the Backdoor Sports kayak shop in downtown Steamboat Springs. In protest, he took matters into his own hands in a case of vigilante justice that would do Charles Bronson proud. He spent 10 days kayaking from the town of Yampa, Colorado, near the river’s headwaters all the way down to Jensen, Utah. While he wasn’t packing heat, he was packing a package of Hostess Twinkies, which he secured inside a waterproof Pelican box. When he arrived in Jensen, he pulled them out and sold them to outfitter Adrift Adventures for a quarter. “I wanted to show that you can use the river to conduct interstate commerce,” he says. “That means the river’s navigable and that land-owners can’t block passage.”

Attempts to block passage on the river aren’t new. In fact, the government’s efforts to stifle the Yampa with the Echo Park Dam in 1956 led to one of the conservation world’s biggest environmental victories ever, thanks to the efforts of the late David Brower, then  executive director of the Sierra Club. But these days the river is staring down the barrel of other threats. Foremost are those involving the water within its banks that is still up for grabs.

For whitewater paddlers, the river’s crown jewel is 7-mile-long Cross Mountain Canyon, which at high water turns into a Class V-VI maelstrom that funnels the river’s 7,660-square-mile watershed into a tight-walled chasm so fierce that ABC Sports once featured it on “The American Sportsman.” At lower flows, it’s a more manageable Class III-IV classic. Still, miss your line in the Osterizer, its opening rapid, and you can count on getting recirculated.

Some interests have recognized the value of an unfettered Yampa. In 2003, the City of Steamboat Springs got in on the action, filing for and winning a Recreational Inchannel Diversion (RICD) water right, proving that recreation is as beneficial a use of the river’s water as are industry and agriculture. One of only a few communities in the country to garner such a concession, it based its filing on two play waves it built downtown: the D Hole, named for the nearby Dream Island Trailer Park, and the C Hole just upstream, named for the late Charlie Beavers, a local whitewater kayaking pioneer with several first descents in the region. At the right flows, the structures create two of the best surf waves in the state, drawing kayakers from across the country. The beauty of the city’s water right is that it’s non-consumptive, meaning it keeps the water in the river and still satisfies downstream uses, but other proposed filings would siphon the Yampa’s flows.

img_5301_fixOther agencies have unveiled recent plans to recirculate some of the river’s water for their own needs. In 2007, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District proposed the $4 billion Pumpback project, which would direct 20 percent of the river’s high-water flow from the town of Maybell to the thirsty Front Range, effectively drying up Cross Mountain Canyon’s historic highs. Energy developers are also making a play. To shore up its oil-shale plans, Shell Oil filed for a water right in December that would pump 8 percent of peak runoff into a reservoir near Maybell.

If these plans go through, the river itself, as well as the wildlife depending on its natural flows, will be the biggest losers. While the Yampa’s upper reaches offer some of the best trout fishing in the West, many of its other aquatic species aren’t faring as well. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the humpback chub (Gila cypha), bonytail (G. elegans), Colorado pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius), and razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus)—all endemic to the Yampa Basin—as endangered due to habitat degradation and competitive nonnative species. Peak flows are vital for the spawning habitats of these unique species. It won’t be long before we start seeing bumper stickers proclaim, “Humpback Don’t Want No Pumpback.”

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