Community Agriculture Alliance: State of the Upper Yampa River Watershed | CraigDailyPress.com

Community Agriculture Alliance: State of the Upper Yampa River Watershed

Kelly Heaney/For the Craig Daily Press

We drink it, we grow food with it, we play in it — the Yampa River Watershed provides for our community in a way that the early settlers recognized when they built Steamboat Springs at the confluence of the Yampa River and six tributary streams.

But what happens to the health of these streams as they navigate through forests, pastures and streetscapes before convening with our free-flowing river? The Upper Yampa Watershed Group invites you to a presentation on the State of the Watershed from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at Library Hall at Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat Springs, where the group will present its findings and solicit stakeholder input on the goals and objectives to be outlined in the Upper Yampa Watershed Plan.

There are two types of water pollution: point source pollution and non-point source pollution.

Point source pollution comes from a source that one can clearly point to, such as industrial and wastewater plant discharges. These sources are regulated by the EPA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System that requires dischargers to meet certain pollutant thresholds before discharging into the environment.

Non-point source pollution comes from less specific sources, such as agricultural runoff, erosion from roads, abandoned mine sites and urban runoff. Non-point source pollution at its worst can be described as "death by a thousand paper cuts" in the water quality world. Limited regulations exist to address non-point impacts. However, if environmental agencies identify a water body as impaired, heavy regulation can follow.

Our community has the opportunity to prevent and respond to non-point source water quality impairments in a collaborative, non-regulatory way.

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Water quality managers in the valley recognized this opportunity in fall 2011 when they formed the Upper Yampa Watershed Group, a collaboration to evaluate, protect and enhance the physical, chemical and biological health of the watershed.

Their first task has been to develop a non-regulatory Watershed Plan that addresses non-point source pollution by analyzing existing water quality data, by assessing the current state of the watershed, and by proposing collaborative projects to address non-point source water quality impacts through monitoring, outreach and education, stream restoration and conservation strategies.

While existing data indicates that the water quality and health of our streams is comparatively high to other mountain communities, negative impacts from various land-use practices and urbanization deserve our attention.

In the city of Steamboat Springs, when rainwater and snowmelt travel across parking lots, lawns and roadways it picks up contaminants from vehicles, lawn fertilizers, litter, sediment and pet wastes, it carries these contaminants into storm drains and ditches and eventually discharges them into the Yampa River.

In a drought year, when the Yampa River stream gauge at Fifth Street reads less than 100 cubic feet per second, the cumulative effect of these contaminants compounded with increased water temperatures can result in a dangerous combination for aquatic life.

That said, the overall prognosis for our free-flowing Yampa River and its tributaries is good — we enjoy a uniquely healthy watershed affording us the opportunity to take a proactive, instead of reactive, approach to watershed planning that will enhance the resiliency of our river systems.

Kelly Heaney is the water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs and she serves on the Technical Committee of the Upper Yampa Watershed Group, the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, and the Community Agriculture Alliance Board of Directors.