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The Colorado River Basin is drying out. The watershed has been gripped by a historic drought for two decades, and flows in its namesake river have dropped by 20 percent over the past century. Conditions are so dire that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is expected to issue the federal government’s first water shortage declaration this month, which will prompt cuts to supplies across the Southwest.
But folks whose lives are tied to one of the basin’s tributaries in northwestern Colorado aren’t standing by idly. In September 2019, more than 20 regional partners from throughout the Yampa River Valley, including recreation-focused businesses, farmers, nonprofits, and municipalities, joined forces to create the Yampa River Fund. Powered by a nearly $4 million endowment, the fund is doing what individual actors cannot: financing environmental restoration projects, agricultural infrastructure improvements, and releases from nearby reservoirs to ensure farmers, recreationists, and wildlife all have enough water to thrive.
None of this will reverse climate change, but the healthier the Yampa is, the better it will be at weathering a hotter, drier world. This understanding is what brought so many diverse—and sometimes seemingly contradictory—interests together. “We focus on creating win-win-win solutions,” says Nancy Smith, Colorado River Program conservation director at the Nature Conservancy, one of the fund’s founding entities. Smith emphasizes that third “win” because consensus is key: “The working group that created the fund took the time to build trust with one another so that everyone in that valley who depends on the river felt like they had a place at the table.”
Using the proceeds from its endowment, the fund has awarded $400,000 in grants over the past two years. Here’s how it breaks down.
Grant Recipient: Moffat County
Moffat County used a grant to bolster the riverbank at Loudy Simpson Park, which was eroding, in part, due to the growing number of people using the steep shoreline to access the river. A new boat ramp built to handle the crowds will limit future erosion (and open six additional miles of river to boaters by creating a new downstream takeout), and an ADA-compliant ramp helps wheelchair users easily access the water.
Grant Recipients: Trout Unlimited and the Yampa Valley Stream Improvement Charitable Trust
The fund has awarded three grants to rehabilitate sections of the Yampa and its tributaries. The work includes improving fish habitat and riparian zones (the border between the water and the land) and stabilizing shorelines to stop the tributaries from carving away at productive farmland.
Grant Recipient: Colorado Water Trust
To combat rising water temperatures and decreasing water levels—both of which harm wildlife, including four species of endangered fish—the fund pays for strategic releases of cold water from nearby reservoirs. The releases also increase water security for local farmers and help keep the river open for recreationists, who pump tourism dollars into the region.
Grant Recipient: The Nature Conservancy
This outlay pays for the permits needed to rebuild the125-year-old Maybell Ditch headgate, which diverts water from the Yampa into an irrigation canal. The new headgate will be more efficient, meaning more water for farmers and wildlife, and safer for boaters, who often avoid this section of river, in part because of the dangerous hydraulics created by the structure’s weir dam. The new, fish-friendly design will also ease passage for endangered species, like the razorback sucker.
Grant Recipient: The city of Craig
Craig received a grant to help pay for a whitewater park to diversify its tourism economy. A new diversion dam will also sustain the city’s water supply and allow fish to move up and down the river to spawn, feed, and escape to deeper water when river levels drop.
Grant Recipient: Yampa Valley Sustainability Council
Volunteers with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s ReTree program have been planting cottonwoods, alders, and willows along the Yampa for more than a decade. In 2020, the council used a grant to procure an irrigation system to increase the saplings’ survival rates, and this year it received another disbursement to cover 2022’s expenses, such as site preparation. One of the main goals is to create more shade to help mitigate rising water temperatures.
Greenway Master Plan
Grant Recipient: The town of Oak Creek
Oak Creek obtained funds to aid the design of a new greenway along a portion of its neglected namesake waterway. Construction will improve access and include rehabbing the creek’s banks, vegetation, and wildlife habitat. A healthy riparian zone can help regulate water levels by soaking up runoff and slowly releasing it into the creek.