Yampa River flows freely and lovely, but with some challenges, too
by Allen Best
DENVER, Colo. – In 2013, Colorado landscape photographer John Fielder took a raft trip down the Yampa River, starting at Steamboat Springs, in preparation for his latest coffee-table book.
An accountant by training, Fielder is that rare individual who has figured out a way to actually earn a living from his love of being in wilder places. When working at a department store chain in metropolitan Denver, he started heading out to the mountains on weekends, lugging around a large-format camera, then began producing books of his photographs, 32 altogether now, along with wall and engagement calendars, notecards, and other merchandise.
He keeps hours that most would consider eccentric. He’s usually out before dawn, to get the special effects of first light, and just as often will return to camp after dark, again in an effort to capture the loveliness of evening light.
For this latest book, Fielder and Patrick Tierney, a former river guide on the Yampa who wrote a 50,000-word text, gamboled on the Flat Tops, a volcanic range between Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs, where the Yampa River originates under the name of Bear River.
Four dams block the river in the first 50-mile segment of bucolic hay meadows before it reaches Steamboat. From there, however, it flows without interruption for 200 miles to Dinosaur National Park, where it joins the Green, which itself is swallowed by the Colorado River near Moab, Utah. It’s this latter segment of the Yampa that is referenced when people say it’s the last undammed river in the Colorado River system.
In the 1950s, that was in question. The Bureau of Reclamation wanted to erect a dam in Dinosaur, to hold back the waters. David Brower of the Sierra Club, the writer Wallace Stegner, and others snorted loudly with indignation and the plan was eventually quashed—although, as a tradeoff, they did begrudgingly accede to the drowning of Glen Canyon, downstream in Utah, creating what is now called Lake Powell.
Showing his photographs to a sold-out crowd at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science recently, Fielder conceded that the Yampa was not entirely the story of unblemished nature that his photographs generally showcase. The river passes two major coal-fired power plants.
But even Steamboat Springs has altered natural flows of the river, said Bill Atkinson, an aquatic biologist who works for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. He said the river is best understood as a canyon in Steamboat, because of adjoining railroad tracks and roads and other intrusions. They together create channel-forming flows, delivering sediments, and altering the biology of the river downstream.
Even so, said Atkinson, the Yampa ranks as No. 1 among the 13 major tributaries to the Colorado in terms of ecosystem function.
A 2006 report about the endangered fish recovery for four species in the upper Colorado River “determined that the Yampa River was the most valuable tributary stream in the system, contributing habitat directly for three of the endangered fishes and indirectly supporting recovery of all four species by providing flow regulation and sediment inputs downstream,” it said, citing a 2000 report by Tyus and Saunders). “Unlike other major Colorado River tributaries, peak flows, sediment transport, and associated physicochemical attributes of the Yampa River have not significantly changed from historic conditions”
Water quality and water quantity are inextricably intertwined. The Yampa remain an inviting resources for Colorado’s Front Range communities. Since at least the 1950s, entrepreneurs have considered what it would take to get some of that water several hundred miles to cities from Fort Collins to the Boulder-Denver metropolitan area. In 2006, that vision was articulated with a conceptual plan – not quite a proposal – to divert water from near Dinosaur National Park, requiring about 300 miles of pipeline.
Colorado’s Dan Birch, deputy general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, cautioned against assuming much water exists available for appropriation. Downstream the water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell continue to drop, he said, even after some good water years.
For now, though, the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas continues its oohs-and-aahs inspiring fountain shows, and the lettuce and broccoli fields of California’s Imperial Valley continue their steady succession of planting and harvesting, some of the water coming from the Yampa.