Steamboat Springs Local officials are asking everyone to stay out of the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs to protect the waterway’s ecology.
The voluntary closures for fishing, tubing, kayaking and swimming were enacted Thursday afternoon as the river flowed at 81 cubic feet per second under the Fifth Street Bridge for the second consecutive day.
“I think this is a very collaborative effort to preserve the health of the river,” City Manager Jon Roberts said after Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife and the city enacted the voluntary closures that cover all forms of recreation. “We’ll have to see where this goes because so much is in the hands of Mother Nature now.”
The closure stretches from the Yampa’s upstream boundary with the city in the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area downstream through Steamboat’s city limits.
Commercial tubing operations on the town stretch of the Yampa ceased voluntarily Wednesday.
Roberts said he still hopes that a plan to release 4,000 acre-feet of water from Stagecoach Reservoir could help the river’s wildlife and habitat survive the low flows.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which manages the water in Stagecoach, and the Colorado Water Trust still were in negotiations this week to make that release a reality by July 1.
But as they brace for the river’s lowest flow since 2002, officials decided the water was too low to continue supporting recreation.
“Everything is conspiring to the point where it’s going to be very stressful conditions for the fish,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins said. “If the conditions persist, which it looks like they will, this could change to a mandatory (fishing) closure of the river and the closure’s scope could expand.”
He added that past voluntary closures have effectively kept tubers, kayakers and anglers off the river.
Conditions a concern
High water temperatures and decreased oxygenation levels accompany the Yampa’s low flows and are a threat to the trout in the river. Parks and Wildlife officials said the added stress of being caught by an angler can cause the fish to die even if they are released quickly back into the water.
The Yampa’s water temperature reached 72 degrees under the Fifth Street Bridge on Thursday afternoon, and it was flowing at just 81 cubic feet per second. The voluntary closures typically are triggered by streamflows below 85 cfs.
“We’re looking down the line and we don’t see a lot of relief coming” for the river, Haskins said.
The last time Parks and Wildlife and the city issued voluntary fishing and recreation bans was in July 2007.
Officials are worried this season’s quick deterioration of snowpack and continued hot, dry weather could create the river’s worst drought conditions in more than a decade.
Haskins said the Yampa’s decline already is two to three weeks ahead of its deterioration in 2002, when it slowed to 17 cfs in July and high water temperatures and low oxygen levels killed fish.
“You just wake up every day wondering what this is going to be like, because we’ve never been here before,” Haskins said. “You think back to 2002 and you wonder how you can go through that again.”
By keeping everyone off the water, wildlife officials hope to prevent fish mortality and protect the fragile river ecology that is exposed by low streamflows. Haskins said that although cold nights currently are allowing the fish to stay healthy, barring any rain or cooler weather, fish health is expected to rapidly deteriorate as the river continues to slow.
Finding other water
Anglers are being asked to find other areas to fish and to avoid fishing during the hottest part of the day.
Local fishing guides already were steering their anglers away from the Yampa on Thursday.
“We still have a lot of water we can fish,” Steamboat Flyfisher guide Mark Kershner said. “We’re trying to make the best of it.”
He said Steamboat’s angling outfitters will do more trips in places like the Sarvis Creek Wildlife Area and along private stretches of the Elk River where the water is typically colder than in the Yampa.
Although other stretches of the Yampa are not currently included in the closure, Haskins recommended that anglers also avoid any of the Yampa River’s public waters downstream of the town of Yampa, including the popular tailwater at Stagecoach Reservoir.
“The tailwaters may stay cooler, but the water level issue is still an issue,” he said, adding that moss is showing up in the area. “It’s not included in the current closure, but if (conditions) keep going the way they are going, I predict it will be.”
He said Parks and Wildlife officers will patrol the Yampa in Steamboat and remind any fishermen still in it about the voluntary closure.
For more information, call the Steamboat Springs office of Parks and Wildlife at 970-870-2197.