Pete Van De Carr: The significance of our water

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Decades working on the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs have taught Pete Van De Carr there’s little he can do but wait and see what happens. A low-snow winter and a warm month of March could melt away the summer river tubing market, a cornerstone of his business.

As we observe the last of our dwindling snowpack, it seems hard to remember the almost 130 percent of average snowpack we experienced at the same time last year. I’m sure there are a few of us who have experienced these extremes, but to have them occur in back-to-back years is quite a challenge for any of us who work in weather-dependent industries.

In the past couple of decades, many water users have been working together to develop drought mitigation strategies. Environmental and recreational interests along with municipal, agricultural and industrial partners have come together in many situations and developed plans to protect us from low-water situations. Now that we’re looking into the grill of one heck of a freight train of a drought, it’s time for a collective call to arms.

What have we got to lose? Lots. As the owner of Backdoor Sports on the banks of the Yampa River, I will be affected tremendously. The river business I started in 1986 stands to take a hit if, come July 4, there won’t be any water in the river to support the kayaking, rafting and tubing business that depends on the flows in the Yampa. Recreation is a big player here in Steamboat Springs and the Yampa Valley as many of us will see diminished returns if the flows in the Yampa drop to possible record flows. Here are some other players who will be impacted:

■ City of Steamboat Springs. In 2002, commercial tubing and fishing dropped 90 percent from levels just five years previous. That’s quite a reduction in river use tax, lodging tax and sales tax, not to mention the RICD (recreational in-channel diversion) water right the city has invested a great deal of cash to secure.

■ Lodging industry. People visit Steamboat Springs to enjoy the Yampa River.

■ Outfitting businesses. Tubing, rafting, kayaking and fishing all will be affected by a river shutdown.

■ Retail businesses. All river-related activity would be impacted. So will sales of merchandise supporting these activities.

■ Restaurants. Certainly our friends whose restaurants are on the river will be impacted. In 2002, when water levels dropped to below 50 cfs, the river just plain smelled bad.

■ Recreationalists. Fishermen, dog owners, swimmers, tubers, kayakers and canoers all will be impacted by a river closure.

■ Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Golf/Trout Foundation, Yampa Valley Fly Fishers and Trout Unlimited have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and volunteer hours developing and maintaining the fisheries through Steamboat Springs.

■ Environment. Droughts have impacted the proliferation of invasive plant species, trout habitat and concentration of pollutants. That’s the short list.

What is being done? The city of Steamboat Springs, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Colorado Water Trust have been meeting to design a model with the goal of keeping at least 85 cfs in the Yampa River through Steamboat Springs. Water in Stagecoach Reservoir has been identified and earmarked for potential release, but this comes at a cost:

■ Upstream holders of water rights will be impacted because their water gates will be monitored and shut down if necessary. What is bad for upstream users is good for downstream users (more water in the river).

■ The capacity of Stagecoach Reservoir may be compromised if the drought continues because it will be more difficult to refill.

■ Water is money. Resources will have to be identified to pay for this. Right now, an acre-foot of water (an acre of water 1 foot deep) costs about $70. A call on 4,500 acre-feet of water (the amount of water identified by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District) would have a price tag of $315,000.

What can you do?

If you are a holder of water rights and would like to lease them to the Colorado Water Trust, email Amy Beatie at abeatie@coloradowatertrust.org. If you know somebody withholding water rights, have him or her contact Beatie.

If you are a member of the group of people impacted by a potential river closure, contact your city council, congressperson or governmental agency and express the urgency of maintaining in-stream flows.

As an outfitter, retailer, lodging provider, restaurateur or any other river user, be prepared to be asked for some level of financial commitment. The outfitters that distribute tubes already have offered to charge an additional $1 per tube for the cause.

Together as river users and policymakers, we will be able to lessen the impact of this drought. We need water for agriculture, recreation and the environment. Together, we will hold on to our most precious resource, keeping water in the Yampa River for a better economy, a better environment and a better quality of life.

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