Warm water temperature shuts down recreation on the Yampa River in Steamboat | SteamboatToday.com

Warm water temperature shuts down recreation on the Yampa River in Steamboat

Tubers float downstream near Charlie's Hole on the Yampa River Monday afternoon. The city has closed the river to recreation due to warm water temperatures and decreasing stream flows.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – To protect the health of the Yampa River ecosystem, the city of Steamboat Springs and Colorado Parks and Wildlife have implemented a closure of the river from Steamboat to the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife area.

On Monday, the city announced a voluntary closure for all recreational river use. In a news release, the city asked that tubers, paddleboarders, swimmers and anglers avoid river recreation. Commercial tubing outfitters have also suspended operations.

West of town, CPW has implemented a voluntary fishing closure.

Though anglers are not prohibited from fishing the stretch of river between Steamboat and the wildlife area, the agency and the city requested that anglers find other places to fish to protect the ecosystem. CPW encouraged anglers to instead cast a line on area lakes and ponds or high-country streams.

A mandatory fishing closure remains in effect on a six-10th of a mile stretch of the Yampa below Stagecoach Reservoir. The closure is enforced by law.

"Commercial operators are required to shut down operations during these closures," said Craig Robinson, interim parks and recreation director for the city. "We ask for compliance from the general public to stay out of the river and not recreate there to help us protect the river resources and the aquatic health of the river."

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A closure is called under three conditions: when the river reaches water temperatures of more than 75 degrees for two consecutive days, when flows fall beneath 85 cubic feet per second or when the level of dissolved oxygen in the water falls beneath a certain threshold.

The water temperature in the Yampa exceeded 75 degrees on both Saturday and Sunday. Stream flows are currently around 90 cfs at the Fifth Street Bridge but are expected to soon fall below the 85 cfs threshold.

"If the river’s getting above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the aquatic life is severely stressed, and this is the time of year when they're feeding, and they're getting ready for winter," said Kelly Romero-Heaney, city water resources manager. "Sometimes, they're seeking refuge in the deeper pools where the water's colder, and if you have a lot of people in the river pushing them out of the pools, moving them all over the river, then they start to burn their reserves."

Romero-Heaney said these impacts won't immediately cause a die-off, but over time, warm waters and human pressure harms the fish.

Trout are cold-water fish that have evolved to function best in water temperatures around 50 to 60 degrees, according to the city’s news release. When temperatures exceed 70 degrees, they often stop feeding and become more susceptible to disease. Wide ranges of temperature tolerances for trout have been reported, but upper lethal limits range from 74 to 79 degrees.

"It's unfortunate, but we understand the reasoning behind it," said Peter Van De Carr, who rents tubes at his business Back Door Sports.

The river is flowing far below its average. Average flow for this day in July is about 445 cfs.

The closure could be rescinded and the river re-opened should water temperatures fall and flows increase. If the river does not re-open, commercial tubing season will have lasted less than a month this year.

Van De Carr said, in recent memory, only the summer of 2002 was a shorter season than this year. Still, he is optimistic that the monsoon season could increase flows in the Yampa.

"There's still a lot of summer left, so who knows?" he said.

With the closure in place, Van De Carr laid off 15 seasonal employees, including 10 part-time teenagers and five full-time adults. The business will be open on a "skeleton basis" to sell river equipment and stand-up paddleboards.

"It pretty much closes us down," he said.

He added that on warm days like Monday, his company would have sent about 100 tubers downstream.

Van De Carr was frustrated to hear the news around 9:30 a.m. this morning, an hour after Back Door Sports opened. He wished the city had contacted him sooner. Still, he is proud of the community for respecting past closures.

"I really appreciate the private folks that support the river shutdown," Van De Carr said. "I think it's such a wonderful community we live in because when it's shut down, it's shut down. It's done, and everyone leaves it alone."

To reach Eleanor Hasenbeck, call 970-871-4210, email ehasenbeck@steamboattoday.com or follow her on Twitter, @elHasenbeck.