Environmental releases from Stagecoach aimed at boosting flows, cooling temperatures in Yampa River
Flows in the Yampa River dropped to near 40 cubic feet per second on Sunday afternoon — just a quarter of the amount of water flowing the same day last year.
The water’s temperature eclipsed 80 degrees last Thursday and has often been well over 75 degrees in the past week — the temperature that closed the river to recreation earlier this month.
But at 8:45 a.m. Monday morning, the outlet valve at Stagecoach Reservoir was opened a little bit further and 20 cfs more of water was flowing into the river.
This will bring the outward flow from Stagecoach up to about 40 cfs with the goal of boosting water levels and decreasing temperature in the Yampa as it flows through Steamboat Springs.
“I think (the strategic releases) are very effective at protecting the health of the river,” said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns and operates Stagecoach.
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The releases hope to buoy flows in the Yampa and protect its aquatic species, as Northwest Colorado is entrenched in the worst level of drought recorded by the U.S. Drought Monitor and several stretches of the river have been closed to recreation, including one of the most popular stretches to fish in the state.
“(Releases) are not going to negate all of the drought conditions we have, but they certainly go a long way in protecting the river health from both a habitat and biological standpoint,” Rossi said.
While the release will help increase flows and sustain the health of the river, Rossi said it likely wouldn’t have enough of an effect on its own to open the river back up for commercial outfitters and anglers.
The release was purchased by the Colorado Water Trust, which finalized a contract to purchase 1,000 acre-feet of water with an option for another 1,000 acre-feet with the conservancy district earlier this month.
This amounts to 40 acre-feet of additional water released into the river each day, with the first 1,000 acre-feet lasting until about the third week in August, Rossi said. The district and trust will meet weekly about the releases, and Rossi said he expected to know when and how much of the other 1,000 acre-feet of water would be released before then.
When that 2,000 acre-feet of water has been used up, the city of Steamboat Springs plans to coordinate with community partners to release additional water and maintain the health of the river.
The water trust raised over $100,000 to support releases this year from both Stagecoach and Elkhead Reservoir further downstream. More than 90% of that money came from the Yampa River Fund, which is a collaboration with more than 20 community partners, including outdoor recreation businesses, the city of Steamboat, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and Routt and Moffatt counties, among others.
“Each year, across the state, the need for this kind of innovation and cooperation increases as our water supply is more stressed,” said Andy Schultheiss, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust.
The trust opted to release the water now because of how hot the water in the river got last week and how low flows had dwindled. It will likely take at least a day to see the impacts of the release, as it will take time for the water to flow from Stagecoach, which includes going through Lake Catamount.
The trust has spent nearly a half-million dollars since 2012 on 12,000 acre-feet of water releases from Stagecoach. The first 1,000 acre-feet of water from the most recent release will cost $45,560.
This water will be shepherded by the Division of Water Resources locally, ensuring that another water user does not remove the release from the river until at least the Steamboat wastewater treatment plant to the west of town.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District has already released about 1,600 acre-feet of water this year for environmental purposes when water was only coming into the reservoir at a trickle.
“When inflows were down in the single digits, we chose not to chase it down all the way that low and just to donate some flow to the river that was stored already,” Rossi said.
Starting Aug. 1, the reservoir is required to release at least 20 cfs to satisfy permits for hydropower production, though it has been releasing about that much for most of the year.
The release requires navigating some legal hoops, as the current laws were not designed for purchases of water that are meant to stay in the river. This requires the trust to partner with an entity like Steamboat, which is justifying the release as water temperature mitigation.
“These arrangements take a lot of work from a lot of different people,” Rossi said, referring to the countless partners involved in the process of making an environmental release from a reservoir. “Without them, this wouldn’t be possible.”
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