Who owns the Yampa?
Those living near the Yampa River point to it with pride. The last major river in Colorado with a natural runoff cycle, it retains its wildness: rushing headlong in the spring and narrowing dramatically in the fall — as it has for centuries.
From below Steamboat Springs to beyond Dinosaur, we float, fish, and splash in the river. We bicycle, golf, and bird-watch along its banks. We respond to its beauty with wide-eyes and photographs.
The Yampa marks our seasons: In the spring, it erupts in a turbulent flood of water muddied by runoff and boisterous with power. The summer Yampa chuckles, tickles toes, and invites participation.
In the fall, patterned with yellow leaves and shadowed by migrating geese, the water slows and shrinks. With winter, the river peeks out blue-gray between patches of iced snow where elk bend to drink in the morning fog.
To us, the river is a gift. We’re happy we have it.
But we don’t.
According to Colorado’s constitution, river water belongs to all citizens of the state and those who put it to beneficial use — a designation difficult to accept for those who feel ownership in the river they see every day.
The Carpenter ranch received the first water right on the Yampa in 1881, and many others followed. Still, the Yampa is one of Colorado’s least appropriated rivers. If energy companies or distant cities can prove beneficial use, they could divert water from a river unfamiliar to them.
Those of us living with the Yampa tend to take it for granted — unaware of the proposals, litigations, and negotiations swirling around the river as incessantly as white waters spin in its rapids.
Two groups churn the waters of river allocation: consumptive users who take water from the river — ranchers irrigating their land, expanding industries, thirsty municipalities — and non-consumptive users, the conservationists and recreationalists who want water kept in the stream.
When I listen to consumptive users, I understand their concerns.
“I am passionate about the river, the lifeblood for our ranch and a source of beauty in our lives,” Jean Stetson said. “It sustained our family’s livelihood for over 50 years, and in return, we used the precious resource carefully. I know other users are equally passionate about the river, but when special-interest groups propose changes, I get nervous.”
I think of Jean’s words when I pass sprinklers spraying an alfalfa field or cattle crowding a trough, and I picture a family earning a living and preserving open spaces with the help of a river.
Energy executives also consider the Yampa a resource, one that could help them meet increased demands as our population increases and sources of energy dwindle.
Shell Oil Company recently stopped action on a claim that allowed it to withdraw water from the Yampa and store it in a downstream reservoir for eventual use in the extraction of oil from shale. However, the company retains the right to use the claim in the future.
I’d hate to see a dam on the lower Yampa, I think. Then I leave my plugged-in home and drive my gas-fueled car to the river for a walk. As I stroll, I wonder if I could do without my multitude of energy-consuming conveniences.
People like living in Colorado; they also like babies, so the state’s population swells. Growing municipalities will require more and more water from the snow that falls in the mountains and flows through the rivers to their spigots.
Whenever I wonder why the Yampa should supply distant cities, I remind myself that those across the mountains are our uncles, brothers, and daughters; the forever-friend from college, the adored fourth-grade teacher, the girl next door who got away. People we care about.
My quandary over best use of the Yampa deepens when non-consumptive users explain why we shouldn’t alter its flow.
Recreationalists talk about the adventure and renewal found on the river: bald eagles soaring overhead, canyons opening before a camera, serenity and peace seeping into one’s soul, a river that drifts in calm ox-bows between Hayden and Craig, then plunges into heart-stopping rapids in the remote canyons of Dinosaur National Monument.
Kent Vertrees, a recreational user and spokesperson, understands we need to use the water of the Yampa, but asks, “Should we dam, de-water, and divert every big river in our state? Shouldn’t we retain the one natural system left?”
Conservationists like Luke Schafer of the Colorado Environmental Coalition want to preserve the river as habitat.
“The Yampa is a wild western river most Coloradoans couldn’t find on a map,” he said. “Yet it is a major migration corridor that nourishes the waterfowl gliding above it, the fish thriving within it, and the plants lining its banks.
“I see the Yampa as an artery that nurtures everything it touches, and I believe it’s an artery in good shape — no need of bypass surgery.”
For years, I’ve wandered the Yampa oblivious to the demands that pressure it: all understandable, all strongly felt, all worthy of consideration. I don’t think I’m alone.
Russell George, an advisor on water issues across Colorado, reflects.
“The Yampa is a blessing,” he said. “Because of its mostly natural flow, we can see how nature manages a river and try to do as well. The question of beneficial use will always be out there, and we’ll always struggle with it.
“In the end, I believe it’s about people talking to one another with respect. Without conversation, we won’t reach agreement. If we want to figure out the best uses for the water of the Yampa, we must communicate.”
I visited the Yampa as I worked on this piece. Each time, I thought of my recent drive along the Columbia River in Oregon.
The Columbia dwarfs the Yampa. Today, the river Lewis and Clark floated in canoes accommodates massive barges: a passage made possible by dredging, locks, and hydroelectric dams that slow and store its water.
In a museum display, I read a description Lewis wrote of the jagged rocks and ferocious water “boiling and whirling in every direction” his party encountered, and I realized the Columbia of today bears little resemblance to the natural river it was.
While I understand the value of the dams dotting the Columbia, I wonder if future generations could see a series of placid reservoirs when they visit the Yampa.
I hope those charged with the complex task of managing the Yampa will listen to one another’s words and find a way to both meet diverse needs and conserve a blessing.
This column originally appeared in The Denver Post on June 26, 2011.