Tubing the Yampa River is a go
July 6, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat's on again, off again tubing season is on again.
After Pete Van De Carr, of Backdoor Sports, observed that the Yampa River was running above 100 cubic feet per second through downtown Steamboat Springs on Friday morning, he unilaterally began renting out tubes. His decision ran counter to a call made earlier in the week by city officials and other river stakeholders to wait until flows could be monitored for several days and the river's oxygenation levels and water temperature were consistently within certain thresholds.
But by Friday afternoon, Chris Wilson, director of the city of Steamboat Springs' Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services Department, changed course and said Van De Carr was in compliance with the Yampa River Management Plan and that tubing is OK for now.
Wilson confirmed that the river management plan allows tubing to resume anytime the river rises above 85 cfs.
"He's in compliance with the Yampa River Management Plan," Wilson said. "So he can tube and so can anyone else."
Wilson initially said the consensus achieved during a meeting of interested parties Tuesday was to wait to see if the favorable pattern of dam releases and weather continues to support healthy flows in the river for several more days before lifting the recreation ban. Factors in that decision included the ongoing release of 24 cfs of water from Stagecoach Reservoir intended to help the river and a tentative short-term release of water from Lake Catamount.
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"We had a meeting to discuss if the impacts of (a reservoir) release raise us to 85 (cfs) or above, what's the next step?" Wilson said. "The group was supportive of it — if (the Lake Catamount release) was over a 10-day window, the city would raise its voluntary closure and based on dissolved oxygen and water temperatures and fish health, (Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife) would decide if they would open their closure, as well."
Van De Carr said Friday that he always has worked on the understanding that once the river rises above 85 cfs, it is again eligible for tubing. He did not attend the Tuesday meeting, but City Manager Jon Roberts said a similar conclusion was reached after a June 24 meeting with Parks and Wildlife where Van De Carr was present.
"The only meaningful numbers for the health of the river are the dissolved oxygen and temperature," Roberts said. "Based upon historical data, it's believed that when the water level gets above 85 cubic feet per second, the dissolved oxygen and temperature numbers are also acceptable.
"But we are in uncharted waters here. Never before have (dam) releases during the summer months been of this magnitude. So any assumptions about the (dissolved oxygen resulting) from dam releases of this magnitude are pure speculation. And what was agreed to is that once the releases were well established, we'd measure the dissolved oxygen and water temperatures and that's how we'd determine the health of the river."
Parks and Wildlife fisheries biologist Billy Atkinson confirmed that his office was open to the city lifting the tubing ban independently of his agency's voluntary fishing ban, but he added that he's not close to taking that step.
The critical issue for trout in the river is the amount of dissolved oxygen, not the streamflow levels that are most critical to tubing, Atkinson said.
"I want to see good conditions for at least six to seven days with a favorable forecast before we even think about lifting the fishing ban," Atkinson said. "We've been through an extended period with the fish not feeding much at all. It takes time for fish to recover and spread out and find feeding lies."
Atkinson said Friday that river temperatures Thursday afternoon reached into the 70-plus degree range, limiting the amount of dissolved oxygen. By early Friday morning, water temperatures had dropped to a more desirable 59 degrees in one location.
Ideal dissolved oxygen levels are in the range of 7 to 8 milligrams per liter, Atkinson said. By Friday morning, the lowest dissolved oxygen level that was measured was 5.35 milligrams in the river near Tree Haus. There was a reading of 6 milligrams between 10th and 11th streets and another of 6.08 at the James Brown Soul Center of the Universe Bridge.
The city issues permits to commercial tubing operations with daily quotas for the number of tubes that can be rented.
Wilson said the impromptu reopening of the tubing season Friday afternoon means the city will have to watch closely to see when or if the river drops below 85 cfs again.
The city imposed a voluntary ban on fishing, kayaking, tubing and swimming last month because of dangerously low flows that could endanger the river's trout population and other ecosystems.
"All of my fingers and toes are crossed hoping that all of the collaborative efforts concerning the health of the river prove fruitful," Roberts said.
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