Doing away with the riprap

Public stretch of the Yampa near Steamboat undergoes rehabilitation

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— "Detroit riprap" isn't what you think it is -- no motivating rhythms, no poetic lyrics -- just the hulks of 50-year-old automobiles.

It's not about hip-hop. It's about a 1971 Rambler. And it's about undoing the damage done by misguided efforts to control erosion on the banks of the Yampa River during another era.

Beginning Aug. 7 and 8, a team of volunteers was poised to collaborate with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and local governments to dig, pry and lift the bodies of old cars from their resting places along the Yampa. The site is several miles upstream from Steamboat Springs in the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area.

"This is the time in a project when you're both nervous and excited," Jim Curd said. "It's showtime, and we're really going to do this. It's like opening a new restaurant, and you open the door for the first time."

Curd is one of five trustees on the board of a local nonprofit organization that conceived a stream-rehabilitation project at "The Chuck," as the wildlife area is affectionately known. The other trustees are Drew Johnroe, Dan Picaro, Kirk Wolff and Steve "Ace" McCann.

The work represents the most ambitious stream-improvement project ever undertaken by the members of the Yampa Valley Fly Fishers and their Yampa Valley Stream Improvement Charitable Trust. Beginning in 1985, they've built a track record with multiple government agencies by successfully putting grant funds to work, to complete stream-improvement projects.

When the final phase of The Chuck improvements is complete, no earlier than 2008, the budget is expected to hit $700,000.

In another era of Steamboat history, one of the most cost-effective ways for landowners to stabilize river banks was to anchor the bodies of junked cars in the soil. The anti-erosion tactic of anchoring stream banks with rock, cement blocks or even old car bodies is often called riprap.

Unfortunately, the cars lining the banks of the Yampa at The Chuck shut down the natural hydrology of that stretch of the river, and throughout time, the river began to lose natural trout habitat. Recent stream surveys netted a few large rainbow trout and a larger number of big northern pike and smaller pike that didn't appear to enjoy a healthy diet.

Pulling the Detroit riprap from the stream banks is just the beginning of the work. Volunteers will condense the main channel of the river to make it deeper in low-water periods. They'll rebuild point bars and install subsurface rock clusters in riffles to improve trout habitat. They'll plant native shrubs to stabilize banks the natural way, and they'll even block predatory northern pike from reproducing, while maintaining backwater sloughs for waterfowl.

The Fly Fishers have raised $90,000, largely through the annual Golf Trout tournament that raises funds in a combined fishing-and-golf outing. It was the creation of Jeff Ruff and others.

The Fly Fishers have funneled those funds into a separate 501-C3, the Yampa Valley Stream Improvement Charitable Trust, founded in 1983. They'll use the money and their own labor to leverage grants and in-kind services. Routt County is providing heavy equipment and labor to help pull the riprap.

"This project was a natural for us," Curd said. "It's going to be one incredible stretch of trout habitat."

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