Playing for keeps

Top-notch boating and fishing spur flood of recreation on Yampa River

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Sunlight glinted on churning water as kayakers flipped in fluorescent boats.

On May 29, crowds of onlookers lined the Yampa River near downtown Steamboat Springs to take in the Paddler Magazine Pro Invitational, a two-part kayak contest featuring a race down Fish Creek in the morning and a freestyle event, or rodeo, in the afternoon.

The event attracted competitors from around the globe. The overall men's winner, "All Day" Jay Kincaid, came from Reno, Nev. The overall women's winner was Tanya Faux of Australia.

A week later, hundreds of Steamboat residents again convened at the river, this time to celebrate the 26th annual Yampa River Festival, which included a boat race and costume contest, another kayak rodeo, a Crazy River Dog event and a fly-casting competition.

Make no doubt about it - playtime on the Yampa River is in full swing.

And the fun is not confined to Steamboat. Doug Ross, a park ranger in Dinosaur National Monument, said he often sees 40 to 50 rafts occupying the same stretch of the river during peak rafting season at Echo Park. Oak Creek resident George Donahue, 53, said he casts his line into the spillway below Bear Lake, near the headwaters of the Bear and Yampa rivers, to get a jump on anglers farther downstream.

"When they were spawning, I'd catch my limit of four (trout) in half an hour," Donahue said on a June morning.

Along the 250 miles of river between Ross and Donahue, more and more people are getting wet.

"The Yampa is really a budding venue for recreation," said boating and fishing guide Kent Vertrees, who has been leading trips on the river since 1994. "It's kind of the new age of river use."

The "new age" is raising questions about the best way to manage a valuable resource.

Landowners say boaters on the Yampa often trespass on private property. Ranchers worry that recreational water rights - such as the one secured by the city of Steamboat Springs in October 2005 - may affect their livelihood.

Owners of commercial river recreation businesses, meanwhile, argue that the industry pumps more than $100 million annually into local economies across the state, that floating and fishing are "non-consumptive" uses of water, and that recreation is a water use with huge public benefit.

The disputes are such that state natural resources director Russell George, speaking at a June 1 water conference in Hayden, used a sobering term to describe the sentiments surrounding recreational river use in Colorado.

"It's almost cultural warfare," George said.

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Graphic by Jayme Elrod

Float, but don't touch

Barry Castagnasso might not be going to war, but his feelings about floating on the river through private property are strong.

"People floating through are trespassing, no doubt about it," said Castagnasso, who raises "Sweetwater Clydesdales" draft horses on his riverside ranch near Hayden. Riding a bus after a June tour of the Elkhead Reservoir expansion near Craig, Castagnasso spoke about protecting the ranch he has lived on for 17 years.

"Trespassing only doesn't make sense to people who aren't landowners," he said, citing canoers and rafters who - knowingly or not - come ashore on private land during a float trip. "The whole concept of water use and appropriation is upside down."

Ron DellaCroce, manager of Yampa River State Park, said there are nine public access sites on the Yampa River between Hayden and Dinosaur National Monument in Moffat County.

"Most of this river is private property," DellaCroce said. "You do have the right to float, but you do not have the right to touch down. To be a responsible river user, you have to understand that."

A lack of understanding is what most often leads to trespassing, DellaCroce added. He is spending part of his summer lining much of the Yampa River with signs designating land ownership by color: red for private, blue for public.

A lot of people will see those signs. A fleet of 13 canoes carrying 26 Boy Scouts was on the way to Maybell that day, DellaCroce said, adding that recreational river use is nonstop throughout the spring and summer.

Vertrees, a former manager of the river outfitting and guide company Blue Sky West, said the company floats about 500 people down the Yampa River through Steamboat each summer, usually on a 45-minute trip that costs about $40 a person. Canoe and raft trips are becoming increasingly popular on the Elk River in North Routt County and on the Yampa in Moffat County, he said.

Considering the number of people floating down the river, it may take more than signs to clarify usage rules.

"State law for navigability of our rivers is very vague," Vertrees said about the landowner issue. He added that when floating on a stretch of the Yampa through private property, it could be construed as trespassing to not only touch the shores, but also to touch the bottom of the river. Laws that potentially could help address the issue would set limits on the number of commercial floaters that can pass through a property each day and would regulate excessive noise, Vertrees said.

"It is an emotional trespass - I can definitely see it both ways," he said. "That definitely is one of the limiting factors of the Yampa - where do you put in and where do you take out?"

Catch and release

One benefit property owners could get from recreational use of the river is allowing anglers to cast lines on their land - and charging as much as $200 a day for the right to do so. A half-day of guided fishing on public water can cost $185, Vertrees said.

"Those ranches right below the Elk (River) are premier fisheries," he said. "The most expensive rod fees are closest to the confluence (with the Yampa)."

Fees can be negotiated between landowners and outfitters, Vertrees said, but at least one angler sees such deals as unlikely.

"That ain't gonna happen," Alex Medranos said at a June 29 meeting of the Yampa River Basin Partnership held at Hayden Town Hall. Medranos, a member of the Craig chapter of the national American Bass Anglers fishing club, said landowners might not want to share bountiful fishing on their land.

"Oh, you want to shoot my deer at the same time?" he said with a laugh.

Public fishing on the six-mile "town stretch" of the Yampa through Steamboat is strictly catch and release, a regulation that Vertrees said is helping maintain quality fishing up and down the river.

"Because people are returning these fish, that's why we have these large stocks," he said.

Lining up for water

In Dinosaur, permits for multi-day rafting trips during the summer go on sale months in advance.

"We usually apply for a (permit) in January," said Karen Morris of Durango as she and her family loaded up their raft on the shore of the river at Echo Park. "We apply every year, but we don't always get it."

Morris, her husband, Alan, and their two children were on the fourth day of a five-day trip down the Yampa. The family was part of a six-raft, 14-person group.

"It's been so much fun," Morris said about the trip, which began at the Deer Lodge Park launch site in Moffat County.

Members of Morris' group owned their rafts and were not floating as part of a commercial trip. Although getting a permit is not a guarantee, organizing their trip likely saved them some money - a four-day commercial rafting trip in Dinosaur can cost more than $700 a person.

Multiplied by the hundreds of rafters who float the Yampa each summer, that cost represents significant income for commercial rafting businesses. A similar economic impact can be seen in the growth of kayaking. Steamboat Springs is home to the kayaking publication Paddler Magazine, which brought the Pro Invitational - along with its competitors and spectators - to town.

The economic impact of recreational water use is part of what led the Colorado Supreme Court to rule in 1992 that recreational in-channel diversions, or RICDs, are beneficial to the public. A RICD is an allocation of water to fuel manmade boating parks such as Charlie's Hole, or C-Hole, in Steamboat. Such parks have been made across Colorado, in cities including Golden, Lyons, Gunnison, Salida and Pueblo.

In 2001, the state Legislature clarified that only local governments could apply for RICD water rights, and it restricted those rights to allow only for the minimum amount of water needed for "a reasonable recreation experience."

Gov. Bill Owens signed Senate Bill 37, a RICD compromise, into state law May 11, 2006. The bill sets limits on how much water can be allocated to a RICD during water shortages, and essentially places new RICD applications at the back of the line for water rights.

Vertrees said getting in line at all is a big step forward for recreational water use.

"But (water) is never guaranteed because we're so low on the totem pole," he said. "I call it a 'semi-quasi' guarantee."

For South Routt County rancher Dean Rossi, even a "semi-quasi" guarantee is enough to make him nervous. Rossi said that after the city of Steamboat Springs filed for a recreational water right in 2003, he attempted to protest in court but couldn't find the money to follow through.

"There was no way we could afford the lawyers. It was amazing, the amount of paperwork that came out," Rossi said. "The possibility that they could disrupt our water rights up here : I'm not even sure how we settled it."

When, not if

Steamboat's recreational water right application was settled Oct. 28, 2005, when District Water Court Judge Michael O'Hara signed it into law at the Routt County Courthouse. City officials filed for the water right in 2003, meaning the city's recreational water right has priority over any water right filed after that time.

Erin Light is an assistant engineer for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. She is with the Division 6 Water Resources office in Steamboat. Light said the decree defining the city's water right allocates varying flow rates at Steamboat's C-Hole and D-Hole kayak parks, from April 15 to Aug. 15 every year. The flow rates change in roughly two-week periods. From April 15 to April 30, for example, the city has a right to 400 cubic feet per second, or cfs, of water flowing down the Yampa. From June 1 to June 15, the water right is for 1,400 cfs - the highest flow rate in the city's decree.

The lowest flow rate is from Aug. 1 to Aug. 15, when the city has a right to only 95 cfs.

This year - the first spring and summer during which the city's recreational water right was in effect - ample water flows made the RICD mostly a non-issue. For much of late May and early June, the Yampa flowed faster than 3,000 cfs.

In late June and early July, however, Light said the river appeared to flow with less water than the city has allocated in its water right. At that point, the city could have made a "call" for more water, Light said, but inadequate measuring stations along the Yampa prevented the city from filing an accurate measurement of flow rates at the two kayak parks.

During the heated, seven-day court battle preceding O'Hara's ruling in October, city water attorney Glenn Porzak said the city would work to improve water-measuring facilities such as the one maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey near the Fifth Street Bridge.

"Before (city officials) can even place a call on the RICD water right, they have to install the appropriate measuring device," Light said.

When a call on the RICD is made, Light said, upstream ranchers such as Rossi may lose surplus water they are accustomed to getting from the under-appropriated Yampa River.

"That is where the city is going to see its water coming from - from ranchers who traditionally have just taken what they needed," Light said. "The first time there is a call on the RICD, that will be something we will check. We'll need to make sure that people are diverting only what they are decreed to."

Surfing in Steamboat

Despite the cultural warfare, George said recreational river use and the associated water rights are not going away.

"I think RICDs are here to stay," George matter-of-factly told the Hayden crowd.

Simply put, that staying power will be the result of the growing attraction of outdoor and river recreation.

Those enthusiasts include the diehards who don wetsuits to kayak the C-Hole in freezing March water and the rafters who float past Steamboat Rock in Dinosaur National Monument each summer.

They also include people like Scott Roche.

Roche, a 16-year-old with dirty-blonde hair, wears the wide-open grin of someone who knows he is a very lucky teenager.

On an overcast July afternoon, Roche sat on the banks of the Yampa River near downtown Steamboat, one leg inside his blue-green "Riot Orbit" kayak. The river flowed at 241 cfs that afternoon, according to the Fifth Street Bridge measuring station.

As he wriggled a black helmet onto his head, Roche said he lives in Evergreen but spends a lot of time in Steamboat skiing with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club as a member of its freestyle ski team.

When asked, somewhat incredulously, whether he skis a world-class mountain all winter and then kayaks through beautiful manmade water parks all summer - all in the same town, Roche took a moment to think.

"Yup," he said, shaking his hips to push the kayak off the rocky bank and into the Yampa River.

And the wide-open grin spread across his face.

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