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Conservationists Mobilize to Protect River

Colorado’s Yampa River is one of the last-free flowing rivers in the West and its water has long been eyed by the oil shale industry and by water agencies looking for new sources to tap to feed communities and farms hundreds of miles away.  But recently Shell Oil shelved an application to divert water from the Yampa for mining, and a powerful Front Range water utility has put its interest in the Yampa on hold.  This has environmentalists looking to seize the moment and drum up support to protect the river.


Historic High Flows

High water years like these are a double whammy for river enthusiasts like Pat Tierney, now in his 35th year of guiding rafting trips on one of the most prized stretches of the Yampa through the Dinosaur National Monument in remote northwest Colorado. 

“It’s like a magic carpet, all you have to do for a lot of it is stay on it, and stay off the banks,” said Tierney.

But as he skillfully paddles this sixteen foot raft into an eddy after a train of waves, it’s clear that what’s happening on those banks also makes him beam.

“I just love it when you see it completely over the bank in so many places,” said Tierney, now a professor at San Francisco State  who did his master's thesis on this river while attending Colorado State University in the 1980s.

Western rivers, and the cottonwood trees that often line their banks, depend on Spring floods to make it through the lean moisture spells.  And historic high flows like these also flush sediment, which means that this murky-looking brown water is actually teeming with life.

Many people think it’s polluted, whereas in fact it’s extremely natural and it’s been this way for thousands of thousands of years," Tierney said, taking a break from rowing.  "The fish have adapted to it and they would not be able to survive without the muddy water."

Tierney says this healthy of a river is in fact an anomaly across the seven-state Colorado River basin – where rivers are dammed and diverted to allow desert cities and farms to bloom.  It’s a point that will come up a lot in the next couple days as he leads a group of conservationists, water managers and a few reporters on what was billed as an educational float through the monument.

“The Yampa, even though a lot of people haven’t heard of it, is a critical river for the Colorado River basin, period, not just the state of Colorado,” said Tierney.

Water Scarcity

Unlike much of Colorado’s mountain country, this isolated corner of the state never really developed.  Today the sage brush land above the steep canyon walls is dotted with sprawling ranches and Bureau of Land Management land, not resorts or other development. 

So why then are conservationists like Tierney so worried?  The answer may be as simple as scarcity.  People want to move to the West, just as most westerners wants to keep living here. 

But the simple reality is there won’t be enough water to go around.

“It’s a very sensitive area," said Jennifer Gimble, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. "I know people in Yampa kind of feel like a sitting duck right now."

250 miles to the east, in bustling downtown Denver, Gimble’s office seems worlds away from the subtle routines of river life.  But this is where the numbers are crunched.  And Gimble says rivers like the Yampa simply have to be considered, when you stack them against projections that Colorado’s population could double by 2050.

“We do know we’re going to have more people coming, and that helps our economy,” said Gimble.

It’s that dichotomy that Gimble considers as she leafs through the recently released statewide water supply study, dubbed SWSI, which backs up what already keeps most water managers up at night: demand for water in states like ours will soon far outstrip supply.

“There’s not one single, strategy that’s going to help us out of this mess, it’s going to take several,” said Gimble.

Including, according to the SWSI report, aggressive conservation and reuse programs, lease agreements between cities and farmers, and possibly, new water storage projects from far flung locales like the Green River in Wyoming and the Yampa in Colorado.  A so-called Yampa pump-back was studied back in 2006 by Northern Water; the agency that secures water for cities and farms along the booming northern Front Range.

“Let’s say it’s on that very far back burner,” said Brian Werner, a spokesman for Northern.

Werner said Northern is currently focused on two other projects much closer to home; the Windy Gap Firming proposal and NISP.  Still, he and other water managers never rule out ambitious storage projects like a pump-back.

“In years like this when there’s a whole lot of water leaving the state at all of our borders, wouldn’t it be nice if we could put some of that in some buckets to carry over for those really dry times?” said Werner.

Conservationists Strategize

Back at the Dinosaur National Monument, the sun is dropping over the steep red rock walls of the canyon. The storage boxes and dry bags once piled high on the rafts have now been emptied into a sprawling and impressive camp. Some river guides play horseshoes, sipping beer with one hand and frying up hamburger meat with the other. After dinner and the libations are over, and while talking over a chorus of crickets, Pat Tierney tries to strategize about how to protect the Yampa.

“My thinking is that if we as a conservation community can’t agree, then how can we expect to sell it to those who would disagree?” said Tierney.

After a few minutes of listening to the group of river and whitewater activists, Peter Flemming, legal counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District chimed in – asking the group if they’d be willing to compromise. How about some smaller water diversion projects, he asks, in exchange for protection along certain stretches. 

Reaction to this seems mixed.

A New Political Reality

The next morning, as camp is broken down and the rafts are packed back up, Flemming said that’s probably because water solutions are never simple, especially as the water itself gets scarcer and scarcer.

“It becomes a political hot potato in many ways,” said Flemming.

But Flemming said there are creative solutions to be had. He points to good-faith agreements like the recent treaty announced between Denver Water and western slope agencies like his.  It will bar any new trans-mountain diversion projects without the sign off of western Colorado leaders.  In exchange, Flemming’s district won’t fight an existing project currently in the pipeline. 

These sorts of give and takes are becoming a new political reality, according to many water officials and analysts.

“'We’re going to sue you, you can take our water from our cold dead fingers,'  that was pretty much the rhetoric of ten, fifteen years ago, and since that time I think there’s been much more examples of cooperation,” said Michael Cohen, senior associate with the California-based water think tank the Pacific Institute.

But Cohen believes the days of building new large water diversion projects like those once built to pipe water hundreds of miles to places like Los Angeles or Phoenix or even the Front Range are over.

“The energy costs of moving water are staggering.  I don’t think most people understand how much of that is involved in the moving of water to their faucet,” said Cohen

But that view continues to be disputed by some water managers who start proposing projects decades before they may ever be needed because the tangle of bureaucracy and negotiations and lawsuits involved with building them takes decades to wade through. 

Northern Water’s Brian Werner says the price of water has gotten so high that these types of multi-billion dollar projects could still become feasible down the road.

The bottom line is we’re going to have to find some more water for future residents of this state, okay?  How we choose to do that then is the $60 million question,” said Werner.

Werner says either answer that, or continue to dry up farms on the productive eastern plains.

Going to the Mat

Conservationists like Pat Tierney and his Friends of the Yampa group insist they’re not in favor of that either.  But, it’s not clear how willing they’ll be to compromise.

“We’re going to go to the mat on this one, so if somebody wants to take this away from my kids and my kids’ kids, look out,” said Tierney.

Environmentalists say the Interior Department’s recent inclusion of the Yampa in its yet-defined land conservation initiative is a good sign for their cause. 

And on this trip, Tierney and the other river enthusiasts decide pending ‘wild and scenic’ designations along stretches of the Yampa are the best bet for federal protection.  Back in the 1980s, Tierney was instrumental in putting that in place on the only river in the state to enjoy such a status – the Cache Le Poudre near Fort Collins. 

That stopped a dam, though a new project is proposed further down that river.

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