Floating the Wild Yampa
Not many Americans outside the river or boating world are familiar with the Yampa River in Northwest Colorado. But this river is worth getting to know – as the last wild river in the Colorado River Basin, it’s a regional and a national treasure.
I just spent five days floating the Yampa with 20 water experts, local officials, conservation advocates, and journalists. (See my journal posts on National Geographic’s WaterCurrents)
The trip was organized by Friends of the Yampa and American Rivers’ Colorado conservation director Matt Rice, and supported by the outfitter OARS. The purpose of the trip: to have a dialogue exploring the question, “what is the value of a wild Yampa?” and discuss the river’s future.
The Yampa River flows 250 miles through Northwest Colorado’s farms and ranches, and towns including Steamboat Springs, before joining the Green at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument. While most rivers in the Colorado River Basin have been dammed and diverted for water supply and hydropower, the Yampa remains wild and healthy – an example of what rivers in this region were meant to be. There is a dam on the upper Yampa but it is far enough upstream that the river’s natural flows and functions are essentially intact.
Unlike its sister river, the Green (which is blocked by Flaming Gorge Dam), the Yampa is still able to transport sand and silt, building habitat like sandbars, beaches and back channels for an array of fish, birds and wildlife.
The Yampa also retains its natural hydrograph – the seasonal high and low flows – that build a rich, dynamic ecosystem. One of my favorite quotes of the trip was from Pat Tierney, a professor at San Francisco State University, who has floated the Yampa for 33 years in a row. He said, “In a wild river system, all of the benefits are provided for free.”
When we dam a river we take away those benefits because the sediment clogs up behind the dam. Dams also often shave the peaks off of floods, “flatlining” the river’s flows. So protecting the Yampa in its wild state – preventing any new dam construction – is important.
We had so many different experts on the trip that every day was a new lesson in geology, native plants, water policy, fish biology, or history. Standing on a cobble bar we learned from Pat about the Colorado pikeminnow, an endangered fish that spawns in the Yampa. Walking the trail through our campsites, John Saunders with Colorado Mountain College told us about the medicinal properties of willow and Mormon tea. Floating in the raft, our guide Bruce pointed out 800 year old pictographs on the canyon wall and explained the history of the Fremont and Ute people. Walking the riverbank, we found marine fossils and rocks that tell a story millions of years old.
We were fortunate to have George Wendt, the founder and owner of OARS, with us on the trip. As we stopped to scout Warm Springs rapid, the biggest of the trip, he told us how he witnessed the formation of this rapid during a flash flood in 1965.
We walked in the footsteps of explorer John Wesley Powell when we stood at the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers at Echo Park.
And downstream on the Green River we saw the silvery wood of an old ladder propped against the dark red canyon wall. Surveyors left the ladder here in the 1950’s, studying sites for dams that would have drowned Echo Park and Dinosaur National Monument. The conservation community won this battle, but lost the tradeoff of damming the Colorado River’s Glen Canyon. The ladder stands as a reminder that if a place is special, protect it. Don’t wait.
While everybody on our trip came from different organizations and agencies and has different goals and perspectives, I know we all agree that the wild Yampa is a unique and special place. This trip brought us together, and there is no doubt we’ll continue to work together to figure out the best strategy for ensuring the Yampa remains a special place for generations to come.
Of all the answers to the question “what’s the value of a wild Yampa,” I think George with OARS answered it best. He described the experiences a river like the Yampa provides for people, taking us out of our busy worlds and reconnecting us with ourselves, our loved ones, and nature.
I know what he means. I’m five months pregnant and I’ll always remember sitting around the campfire on the first night, feeling the baby kick at the same moment a quick shooting star arced over the canyon rim. I can’t wait to tell this baby about his first river trip, and I can’t wait to bring him here when he’s old enough to see the wild Yampa again.