State park managers in Routt, Moffat counties react to 2012 drought

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— The managers of Routt County’s three major state parks told the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that they are preparing for another season of drought while they study the impacts the drought of 2012 had on their campgrounds and picnic areas.

Steamboat Lake/Pearl Lake, Yampa River and Stagecoach state parks capitalize on some of the most popular reservoirs in Northwest Colorado.

Julie Arington, manager of Steamboat Lake State Park, said her park’s loyal visitors began returning in larger numbers in late summer 2011 and early summer 2012 after some of the most popular campgrounds at the park situated between Hahn’s Peak and Sand Mountain north of Steamboat underwent timber cutting in 2009 to remove pine trees killed by beetles.

Park visitation was “about 10 percent above last year, and we attribute that to recovering historical use," Arington said, referring to the fiscal year that began in July 2011 and ran through June 2012. "For a while, the (campgrounds) did not look as nice, but now it looks nice, so people are starting to return.”

The combined Steamboat Lake and Pearl Lake state parks have seen 450,000 annual visitors for many years, but those numbers dipped lower during the tree removal process and now are beginning to return to those historic levels, she said.

But by late summer 2012, the reality of drought also had made itself apparent.

“We're having a lot more water issues than ever in the past,” Arington said. “Last year, we began releasing more water (owned by Colorado Parks and Wildlife) to help the endangered, native fish.”

That water was destined for western Moffat County and beyond, via the Elk River, to boost streamflows in the desert reaches of the Yampa River. Arington told the commissioners that seeing the impact of the drought as well as the Colorado Parks and Wildlife releases and how they combined to lower the level of the lake last summer underscored the fact it was built for water storage and consumptive uses.

Xcel Energy owns 4,000-acre feet of water in Steamboat Lake but didn’t call for nearly that much in 2012. If it ever did claim all the water it is entitled to at its power plant near Hayden, “it definitely would have a bigger impact than it did last year,” Arington said.

Commissioner Doug Monger, who also sits on the board of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy, predicted that if the two-year drought continues, the residents of the valley will come to see Steamboat Lake in a new light.

“People will see in two more years, going into 2014-15, that it will turn into not a recreational lake but (one) that stores water that will be put to consumptive uses like Xcel’s,” Monger said.

Yampa River State Park, which comprises 13 river access points stretching along 134 river miles and the recently improved day-use facilities at Elkhead Reservoir between Hayden and Craig, also was affected by the 2012 drought.

Manager Ron DellaCroce said low river levels took the river access points out of play for floaters last summer and bans on open fires took some of the allure away from the campground west of Hayden.

“Who wants to go camping without a campfire?” DellaCroce asked the commissioners. “Roasting marshmallows over a Coleman stove is just not the same.”

DellaCroce expects floating between Hayden and Craig to peak by mid-June this season.

Heavy day use at Elkhead Reservoir, combined with the growing numbers of big game hunters who base themselves in the campground west of Hayden, saved his park’s season, he said.

Stagecoach State Park Manager Craig Preston said Stagecoach Reservoir was not short on water last summer.

"We had 160,000 visitors last (fiscal) year. That was 10 percent higher than the previous year,” Preston said. “A big part of that was the early spring thaw. April, May and early June (2012) were significantly higher than in a typical year.”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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