River study continues

Examination to reveal snapshot of Yampa's health

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— In the midst of waxing philosophic about the concentration of mayflies in the Yampa River, the city's Open Space Supervisor Mike Neumann turned his head to watch a bright blue raft float slowly by.

"Demand is really picking up," he said. "The tubing season is going to start early this year."

Neumann has been charged with balancing the needs of the river with the needs of a number of embattled river users. And though he's concentrating this summer on getting the most accurate data available on the health of the river, there are more than a few distractions on the political tightrope he is walking.

Neumann has been working with consultants from Boulder-based Aquatic and Wetland Company and the various users of the river to determine what data will be collected in the city's $50,000 river study. The study was commissioned in conjunction with a $25,000 river modification plan after the city decided to ban commercial tubing above Fifth Street for this summer. The first phase of that modification plan, which includes placing boulders in the lower part of the river to channel it, is about 90 percent complete, Neumann said.

Now, as the consultants begin to collect data, Neumann is considering how the numbers that determine river health will help the city make policy decisions about regulating the use of the river.

The study will not be able to determine whether tubers or fly fishers for that matter are causing significant harm to the river or the riverbed, said Celine Pliessnig, an ecologist with the consulting group. What it will do is tell the consultants whether the river is healthy and perhaps offer some preliminary clues as to why or why not.

"There are so many users," Pliessnig said. "How are you supposed to determine who's doing what?"

Similar questions were asked by state environmental health biologists earlier this spring when they began a study of the effect of nutrients flowing into the river from everything from wastewater treatment plants to construction sites. The potential reasons for excessive nutrients are broad and would need further study after baseline data is collected, state biologists said.

The city consultant's data may also serve as a baseline for future studies that could possibly zero in on the damage done to the river by tubes, rafts and human feet.

The data the consultants are collecting includes information on nutrients in the river, water temperature and turbidity, flow and the vitality of the ecosystems in and around the river, Pliessnig said.

"What we'll have is a series of snapshots on the health of the river," Neumann said. Meanwhile, activity on the river may pick up earlier than usual because the river has begun to dip below its normal rate of flow for this time of year, Neumann said.

Neumann said the river has been changing rapidly in the past week, dipping below 1,000 cubic feet per second two weeks earlier than normal.

That means an earlier start to the commercial tubing season.

Neumann said he has been trying to expedite the permitting process for commercial operators on the river because of the early drop in the water level.

Despite one tubing company owner's claims to be going out of business, all six operators that charted the river last summer will be back this year, Parks and Recreation Director Chris Wilson confirmed.

The city has maintained the same caps on tubing that it had enforced on the upper stretch of the river, Neumann said.

Those caps mean there could be a total of 895 tubes on the river on weekend days, not including any private tubers, who are allowed to ride the upper river. On weekdays there will be fewer tubers allowed.

The city is planning on regulating tubing more stringently this summer, instructing river police to enforce regulations such as a ban on glass containers, alcohol and nudity on the river.

Neumann knows the Steamboat Springs City Council will have to take another look at what to do with the conflict between user groups on the river most noticeably between tubing companies and fly fishers when the "test summer" of 2001 ends.

The data collected from the tests and surveys, along with the experience of tubing companies on the shorter, lower stretch of the river may determine what happens next year, Neumann said.

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