By Nathan Fey, Colorado Stewardship Director for American Whitewater
Cutting through the steep canyons and arid sage lands of northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah, the Yampa is the region’s lifeblood. The river’s relentless force has carved out the area’s stratified geology and exposed the fossils that give Dinosaur National Monument its name.
The Yampa’s calm waters also lure anglers and its rapids attract almost 10,000 kayakers, rafters and adventure-seekers each year. I have paddled this river, and it is a treasure. I know there is nothing more important to the vitality of this arid region.
Many consider the Yampa the birthplace of the river conservation movement in the West. In the 1950s, when David Brower fought against the proposal to drown the Yampa Canyon behind the proposed Echo Park dam, a new era of awareness and conservation was born.
Today, as we plan our annual trip down the Yampa in late May (spaces are still available!), I’m reminded again of how special this river is. As one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West, the Yampa is a place for inspiration, adventure and the unexpected. As the home of one of the most challenging rapids in the West, Warm Springs, the Yampa provides opportunity for growth and challenge to even the most experienced paddlers, while on its calmer stretches, families with kids can enjoy the pristine sandstone cliffs and scenic canyons shaped by the river.
I recall a trip in May 2011 during some of the highest water levels on record in the river. I joined friends and colleagues on the annual Yampa River Awareness Project, for a float though the National Monument. Most of us on the trip had years of experience on rivers – assessing streamflow levels, guiding first-timers, scouting rapids, and sharing stories around the campfire of adventures from past years.
Collectively, we had decades of river experience under our helmets, but we were all enamored with how alive the Yampa felt that year. With lots of snowmelt in the Colorado mountains, the river surged with energy, and as that snowmelt made its way downstream, we were all reminded how our 19th Century policies of water development has sucked the life out of most western rivers.
But on the Yampa that year, we were giddy – listening to the river’s voice echo off the canyon walls, blasting through waves, and running rapids that took on a character that we had never seen before. It left us all grinning from ear to ear.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to float from Deerlodge Park, on the easternmost edge of the National Monument, and enter into the Yampa Canyons from the river immediately gains perspective on how a dynamic river shapes the landscape. Few rivers in the West still afford the opportunity to feel the steady, persistent shaping forces of unimpeded streamflow as the Yampa.
For three months a year (May-July), the Yampa River flows free with fresh, surging run-off from miles above — waters originating from the melting snows and glaciers of the world-famous Rockies. On most rivers in the West, this water is dammed and diverted into ditches and pipelines before these natural flows clean our river corridors, encourage new growth of rare cottonwood and willow forests, or provide opportunities for healthy outdoor recreation and exploration of our natural world.
In its natural state, the Yampa offers easily manageable class III and IV whitewater rapids, sandy beaches, deep, colorful canyons, habitat for native plants and animals, and other splendid features of a river unfettered by man-made obstructions. Its location in Dinosaur National Monument adds an intriguing archaeological element, and side hikes along the river reveal ancient fossils, prehistoric Native American ruins, and petroglyphs carved into cliff walls. All these treasures are encased in a strikingly beautiful river corridor.
And beyond just the allure of the river, there’s the role it plays in the Colorado River Basin, which supplies water to 35 million people in seven states and Mexico. The Yampa is a major tributary of the Colorado, which has been increasingly stretched as demand exceeds supply, and climate warms and dries. The river’s flows are eyed by downstream water-users in Utah, Arizona and California, as well as by the thirsty cities of Colorado’s Front Range. And with the California mega-drought hitting crisis levels, pure mountain water is at a premium.
That fact behooves all of us to take a closer look at how water is managed in the West, or we will soon see the end of rivers like the Yampa. There is enough water for healthy communities around the region, but only if we use it wisely.