Google Street View rows viewers down virtual Yampa Canyon whitewater adventure | SteamboatToday.com

Google Street View rows viewers down virtual Yampa Canyon whitewater adventure

Devin Dotson of American Rivers wore the Google Street View trekker camera on a hike up Bull Canyon to an overlook of the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument during a collaborative effort among his organization, O.A.R.S. rafting company and Friends of the Yampa to create a virtual trip down a rugged stretch of the Yampa and Green rivers in Dinosaur National Monument.

— Permits to float one of the wildest rivers in the West are precious, but now, computer users can take a vicarious trip down Northwest Colorado's Yampa Canyon. And you don’t even have to get wet.

Google Maps Street View this week debuted a virtual float down the Yampa River in Dinosaur National Monument, where of course there are no streets, just a protected desert river flowing through sheer sandstone cliffs.

The new simulated whitewater float comes at a time when the future of the Yampa and the canyon it flows through are growing topics of discussion.

Kent Vertrees, of Steamboat Springs, agreed Thursday that 2015 could be a fateful year for the Yampa River. He is a 10-year member of the Yampa/White/Green River Roundtable, which is charged with making recommendations about the future management of Northwest Colorado's rivers. Those recommendations will be taken into consideration in the new state water plan to be finalized in December.

The unanswered question on the minds of water experts and users in Northwest Colorado is whether the Yampa will be tapped to meet the rest of the state's water needs for decades to come, with the potential that Yampa Canyon could be changed forever.

"With the Colorado water plan coming out and the way the state's going right now, you have to wonder how long it will be before we reach a tipping point and they come after a trans-mountain diversion (of the Yampa's water)," Vertrees said. "It's not a certainty, but all things are pointing that way with drought and growth and the knowledge that we have a water (supply) gap and at some point in time it's going to be asked for."

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The Google Maps Street View trip down Yampa Canyon takes in the dramatic black stripes of the overhanging Tiger Wall and daunting Warm Springs Rapid and reveals 1.2 billion years of geology in 23 layers of rock.

With the support of O.A.R.S. rafting company and in collaboration with members of Steamboat Springs-based Friends of the Yampa, the conservation organization American Rivers mounted one of Google's Street View Trekker cameras on the frame of an inflatable raft for a four-day trip through Dinosaur National Monument in June 2014. The camera captured 360-degree panorama images every few seconds, stitching together a float down 72 miles of river, beginning west of Craig in Deer Lodge Park.

Friends of the Yampa Board President Soren Jespersen hopes that the new ability for people to experience the Yampa, which is recognized as the last natural flowing large tributary in the entire Colorado River system, will increase support for preserving its natural attributes even as the demand for water in the West escalates.

"We are positive that these virtual visits to the Yampa will lead to more people wanting to help protect this magical place," Jespersen said in a prepared statement.

Only a relative handful of people have the opportunity each year to float Yampa Canyon, and Vertrees, also a member of Friends of the Yampa, said that makes the required National Park Service permits highly sought after.

"Google Street View opens up the Yampa to a lot of people, because if you think about it, not a lot of people get to go down it. Of all the big rivers of the American West, the Yampa is the most sought after because the permits are so hard to get," Vertrees said.

Dinosaur National Monument River Program Manager Kelly Kager said Thursday that the number of people who float Yampa Canyon can vary significantly from year to year with the duration of spring runoff. In 2014, 3,183 people floated Yampa Canyon to its confluence with the Green River and beyond to Split Mountain.

"Last year was a good average water year," in Yampa Canyon, Kager said. "In 2012, we didn't have any launches after June 9. In 2011, there were trips up into September."

Annually, there are 300 private and 300 commercial permits available for the entire national monument during the high-use season, which begins the second Monday in May and continues through the second Friday in September, Kager said. Each year, there are seats on commercial rafts that go unfilled.

In contrast to the Yampa, the Grand Canyon, with its dam-fed flows available much of the year, saw 109,054 floaters on commercial trips in 2013 and 97,683 floaters on private trips that year, according to the National Park Service.

Vertrees describes a balance that could be struck to support Colorado's future water needs, the needs of water-users in the river basin and the preservation of the rare community of plants and animals that Yampa Canyon fosters. His hope is based upon the reality that Colorado is obligated by the 1922 Water Compact to send a significant portion of the water that arises in its mountains and feeds the Colorado River to states like Nevada, California and Arizona.

The water in the Yampa that flows out of Colorado into Utah represents a hedge against any inability to meet those compact demands in the future, Vertrees said.

"It's almost inevitable that the Eastern Slope will come after the Western Slope's water one more time, but if it happens on the Yampa, there's going to be a lot of outcry," he said. "Maybe after we plan for the water needs of Northwest Colorado, we decide to let the water flow downstream and let it be the cushion for Colorado's," compact obligations.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1