Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
podcast_1400-MiddayEdition.jpg
KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Can A ‘Wild’ River Survive In A Rapidly Drying West?

 August 28, 2019 at 10:24 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 It's tough to find a river in the west that still behaves like a Western river on that rises and falls with the rush of melting snow. Most of the region's major streams are controlled by dams and that makes the relatively free flowing Yampa river in Northwestern Colorado unique as Luke Runyon reports, the people who depend on it are wondering how best to protect the river as the west water grows more scarce. Speaker 2: 00:27 That's the sound of river guides hammering stakes into the sand along a small beach inside Yampa Canyon, they're keeping seven inflatable rafts from drifting downstream where Whitewater is churning. Sending an ominous roar Speaker 3: 00:41 up the narrow sandstone wall. Speaker 3: 00:48 John Saunders purchase on a rocky outcropping and points out the features of warm springs. It's one of the river's more technical sections. The water is beige and roiling like a latte in a blender on high speed. As the water comes around the corner, you start to see ways picking up and you see some waves that are actually crashing and looks intimidating. I'm part of a group of about 30 people, including water professionals and elected officials on a five day trip through dinosaur national monument. It's organized by conservation groups, including American rivers and Whitewater outfitter. Oars Saunders is one of our guides. How many times have you run this stretch? Oh Gosh, that's a good question. 10 or 15 maybe. And does it ever look the same? No. It's a different story every time we come. What do you think when you look at it? I think it looks scary. I agree with this is a good illustration. Yeah. Speaker 2: 01:47 Of what makes the Yampa so unique in the west. It's flow changes daily. And while that might sound like a small detail, it's variability is a defining feature. Speaker 4: 01:57 This river is uh, a relic in some ways. Speaker 2: 02:01 Kent for trees is the board chair of the river advocacy group, friends of the Yampa. At the end of a cold, rainy day on the river, we chatted at a narrow camp site called compromise. It's a fitting name given the growing pressures on the Yampa and other rivers across the West. Speaker 4: 02:17 Today's world where most rivers have been damned diverted and de-watered to the point where they're not functioning as rivers do or use to. This rivers still has that functionality Speaker 2: 02:33 and that's not by accident. It comes despite varying interests, cities, farmers, and recreational lists all wanting a piece of it. In the 1950s environmental groups stymied an effort to dam the Yampa, but Virtru [inaudible] and others know the day will come when the river could be more vulnerable. Speaker 4: 02:52 We do have a lot of growth happening in Colorado, all of the states in the Colorado Basin. We've been far enough away to this point to to preserve the flows of the input. Speaker 3: 03:08 The largest city along the Yampa is steamboat springs, and while the community relies on the river for its water, the valley's biggest users are farmers and ranchers. Part of the ranch is right at Clark. Jay fetcher raises cattle along one of the rivers, tributaries. Part of his operation is growing hay for his animals in the amount of water it takes me to your flutter gate. That middle would take care of 3000 people for one year if it were shipped to the front range. Do you think that sometimes agricultural users get unfairly blamed for water scarcity problems or, I do think we get, we get blamed. Yeah. Yeah. [inaudible] and yet people want to eat. They do want to eat and they want to recreate, right? They want to recreate Speaker 2: 04:02 with high flows. This summer, the fishing tubing and rafting was good, but it was a different story last year when drought and record heat caused parts of the watershed to run dry. Speaker 5: 04:14 It was a big deal, number one, because it had never happened before. Right. Speaker 2: 04:18 Aaron light is the state engineer in charge of managing and measuring water in the Yampa and its tributaries Speaker 5: 04:24 and number two, it encompass the entire Yampa river. Speaker 2: 04:27 She had to turn off water to some ranchers to meet other water obligations down river. That's when the Yampa became the newest member of a whole class of western rivers ones where there's more water on paper than in the river itself. Speaker 5: 04:42 Sometimes we joke about it being, or maybe not joking, it's just a statement and we use that as the last frontier and when it comes to water, I think we are the last frontier. Speaker 2: 04:50 So far no one's shown up on Jay fetcher's doorstep looking to buy his water yet, but for agriculture to survive in the long term, he says they need to make the case that their livelihoods are valuable. Speaker 3: 05:04 I think with Colorado getting thirstier with more people, we who use the resource, the river through our water rights have to think about what other benefits are provided by our flood irrigation at Colorado and Jones, Speaker 2: 05:25 like the wetlands. He says his flood irrigation creates that wouldn't be there otherwise. Speaker 4: 05:30 Wow. Speaker 2: 05:34 Back in Yampa Canyon. Those same concerns weigh on. Jackie Brown, she's a recent appointee to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. It's the state's decision making authority on all things water. Speaker 3: 05:46 I think we're really out of out of time and water development and in water resource management when we've built relationships Speaker 6: 05:58 to have the hard conversations Speaker 2: 06:02 once then include the contentious issue of pursuing federal protection for the rivers flow or demand management. A still theoretical program that would pay farmers to irrigate less and send the saved water to the Colorado rivers dwindling reservoirs. Speaker 7: 06:18 Something that I grapple with all the time is what does rural Colorado look like in two years, in five years, in 10 years, in 50 years. That's the question we're asking ourselves right now. Speaker 2: 06:30 It's a future that's still being written and charting. That course will be up to everyone who uses water in the area Speaker 3: 06:38 west. I think rivers that have a natural heartbeat or what we're calling on this trip, that natural hydrograph again, river guide, John Saunders, they tend to reflect a story and so we're starting to see this story change and every time we come down here it's a, you know, much like in our own lives. You know, if we look at our own lies, every day is a different story. I think rivers reflect that. Speaker 2: 07:04 There was one more point of reflection on the trail when the rafts slipped silently in echo park where the Yampa ends and meets the Green River. Let's go that way first. Just yell Yampa as long as you can. Staying silent for, let's say a good 10 seconds, 10 count. Try To count how many echoes you can hear. Okay. One, two, three. Speaker 6: 07:27 Yeah. [inaudible] Speaker 2: 07:34 in Yampa Canyon. I'm Luke Runyon. Speaker 6: 07:41 [inaudible] [inaudible].

MiddayEd_generic-new_Grif9Rw.jpg
Finding a river in the West that still behaves like a Western river — one that rises and falls with the annual rush of melting snow — is tough. Many of the region’s major streams are controlled by dams. Their flows come at the push of a button. Instead of experiencing dynamic flows, dammed rivers are evened out. Floods are mitigated and managed, seen as a natural disaster rather than an ecological necessity.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments