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Yampa HW CoverIn the Winter 2010 issue of Headwaters, Water Education Colorado visits the Yampa, White and Green river basins of northwest Colorado. The Yampa River retains a distinction not afforded to any other major river in Colorado--It is essentially undammed. This makes its biology unique and its recreational opportunities world-class. The largely agricultural basin, however, is faced with many modern problems, including energy development, in-basin growth and trans-basin diversion prospects.  Read on to learn more about this beautiful part of Colorado ...   

Read featured articles below, or view the magazine online.

The Yampa, White & Green River Basins: An Overview

By Jayla Poppleton

Colorado’s Yampa River retains a distinction not afforded to any other major river in Colorado or the entire Colorado River system stretching southwest to California and Mexico. It is substantially undammed but for a few small to medium-sized reservoirs near its headwaters. In the 250 or so miles it runs from the Flat Tops Wilderness Area southeast of the small town of Yampa, north to Steamboat Springs and west toward Utah, the snowmelt-flooded river courses wildly each spring. Flows taper off by the end of the summer following the natural hydrograph, or charted rise and fall, of the river’s cyclical runoff pattern.

Read more: The Yampa, White & Green River Basins: An Overview

Aiming for the Bull's Eye: Oil Shale

By Allen Best

To squeeze the stone of oil shale, I had parked the car along Piceance Creek Road. Piceance Creek itself flowed by about 100 yards away as I walked to a road cut where deposits were exposed. Three miles downstream from here, the creek would join the rippling currents of the White River. It was quitting time in the gas fields, and big trucks and pickups hurtled past, crowding the pavement on a country road built for the occasional needs of local ranchers traveling to Meeker, Colo., 15 miles away.

The natural gas boom of the past decade had turned this once-pastoral region of northwestern Colorado into a maze of giant pipelines, warehouses, and house-sized air compressors sealed off by chain-link and barbed-wire fences. At the time of my visit in the summer of 2008, the derricks of several dozen drill rigs sprouted amid the rolling hills of sagebrush, greasewood and piñon pine.

Read more: Aiming for the Bull's Eye: Oil Shale

Pumped Up: Transbasin Diversions

By Josh Zaffos

In October 2009, the Steamboat Springs City Council approved its largest annexation in decades. Known as Steamboat 700, the development along the city’s western edge will bring in about 2,000 new homes with 4,700 residents, plus another 380,000 square feet of commercial space. The new neighborhood represents a remarkable 45 percent increase in the population of Steamboat Springs, but the growth spurt is something of an aberration in northwestern Colorado.

As the Front Range has transformed from open farmland into sprawling suburbs, residential expansion around Steamboat and along the Yampa and White rivers has been relatively tame. The region’s gradual growth partially explains why the Yampa and White are an exception in a state where most rivers have reached, or are near to reaching, maximum allocation.

The mighty streamflows in the Yampa River—topped in-state only by the Colorado—aren’t just attractive to outdoor enthusiasts and freshwater ecologists; they have long been coveted as untapped water resources in Colorado and the West. Two recent proposals for substantial transmountain diversions are now following decades-old attempts to dam and divert water from both the Yampa and Green rivers.

Read more: Pumped Up: Transbasin Diversions

An Ecological Lifeline

By Wendy Worral Redal

Unlike other tributaries of the Colorado River, the Yampa is a master sculptor. During the spring and summer floods, when melting snows turn the Yampa into a roaring torrent of chocolate-brown rapids, the river is constantly creating new habitat as it destroys the old.

Unimpeded by any major dams, the Yampa is one of the few remaining rivers in the West that still functions as it has for millennia. Despite several diversions that feed small reservoirs on the Yampa’s upper reaches, its natural hydrograph—the river’s historic seasonal flow pattern—persists, sustaining a host of distinctive ecological features. Among them are globally rare cottonwood gallery forests, four federally endangered fish species, state-listed fish, and a wide range of wildlife.

Read more: An Ecological Lifeline

A Rancher's Life

By Jerd Smith

Ranchers have muscled their way across the lands of the Yampa River Basin for more than 125 years, welcoming the river’s huge flows to their hay meadows in the summer, using sleds to feed that hay to their cattle when winter snows cover the valley.

Matt Belton, 40, and his wife Christy, 37, are no exception. Matt is a fifth generation Yampa Valley rancher. On a bright Saturday morning in November, he is impatient to get to work. His equipment—four gleaming, black, Percheron work horses—is nearly ready as well.

At 7:30 a.m. the horses are waiting to be harnessed to a giant hay sled. Throughout the winter, on sub-zero mornings, Belton can be found in a gracious, old, red barn that nearly touches Elk River Road northwest of Steamboat Springs, loading the sled with more than 70 hay bales. It will take several hours to feed the 150 mother cows that comprise Matt and Christy’s permanent herd. “What I love about ranching is that it’s very rewarding work, although it’s also very hard,” Belton says.

Read more: A Rancher's Life

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