Puzzles are  a team effort: someone studies the picture, someone finds the edge pieces, and others look for certain colors. Then, the assembly begins. Finishing the puzzle is gratifying, but even better are the moments when you finally find that one piece that you’ve been looking for and the picture comes into focus.

Putting water into a natural stream when and where it is needed, is a lot like putting together a puzzle. The final picture is a beautiful flowing river; its pieces include water rights and downstream beneficial uses. The pieces fit together when a water right is paired up with a downstream use, allowing water to flow down the natural stream, boosting flows when the river might otherwise be in poor shape or maybe even completely dry.

The Colorado Water Trust (CWT) is a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring flows to rivers in need. CWT’s work on the Yampa River puzzle began in 2012. A decade later, 2022 is poised to be our most ambitious year yet, having acquired up to 5,750 acre feet (af) of water under contract for delivery to the stream for the benefit of the River and all who rely upon it.

The Context: Yampa River

The Yampa River extends across northwest Colorado, in the middle of a 7,660 square mile basin. I think of the Yampa as a shepherd’s crook laid horizontally, with the bottom tip at the border of Utah, the heel curving through Steamboat Springs, and the nose pointing toward the White River in the Flat Tops Wilderness.

Like other Colorado rivers, the Yampa is experiencing declining flows. According to a recent analysis, Yampa streamflows have dropped roughly 25 percent over the past 100 years, from 1.5 million acre-feet to 1.12 million acre-feet annually, a change attributed to sustained drought and climate change. Higher temperatures melt snowpack earlier and faster, leading to the most acute problem on the Yampa –dangerously low base flow in late summer and early fall.  In addition, parched soils suck up runoff and return flow, reducing the amount of water that would otherwise make it to the natural stream.

Low baseflow means that the River is vulnerable to dewatering. The River gets so low fish can get stuck in one part of the River preventing them from spawning or finding enough food, and leaving them exposed to increased predation. Extremely low baseflows put the River in danger of heating up so much that fish have trouble breathing. Fish species on the Yampa exposed to these risks include a special population of whirling disease resistant rainbow trout, rare mountain white fish, and four species of endangered fish.

In an effort to mitigate damage to the ecosystem in general and the fish in particular, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Steamboat Springs close the River to fishing and other forms of recreation. Such closures have ripple effects on the local recreation and hospitality industry, which is largely dependent upon the River when ski slopes are closed. Last, but not least, when baseflow is too low, agricultural producers cannot divert the water they are otherwise entitled to, jeopardizing the viability of small, family owned ranching operations and depriving riparian corridors of late season return flow.

Conditions reached a new breaking point in 2018, which was the fifth driest year in the 123-year record of Colorado and the first time in history of a call on the Yampa. Only two years later, in 2020, the River was again on call. Then, in 2021, the State Engineer declared the majority of the lower basin over appropriated. Things don’t look much better for the Yampa this year.

So how do we put the puzzle together so that the result is a beautiful, flowing Yampa River?

Putting the Puzzle Together

Like Trout Unlimited’s Winter Flow Program in the Upper Rio Grande, the answer involves storage, strategic releases, and identifying multiple uses for every drop of water released.

At 36,000 af of active storage, Stagecoach Reservoir is the basin’s largest reservoir. It is located at the crown of the shepherd’s crook between Steamboat Springs and Wolcott. The reservoir is owned and operated by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (UYWCD), which has been an outstanding partner to CWT for the past decade.

In the past, CWT purchased water from UYWCD for release to the Yampa River using contracts negotiated annually. However, in December of 2021, UYWCD and CWT executed a 10-year contract. It allows UYWCD to set the amount of water it will make available for release on an annual basis, but provides consistent terms and operations for certainty and a streamlined process.

Under this new 10-year contract, for 2022, UYWCD has advised CWT that that up to 5,100 af will be available for release. When CWT makes strategic releases, deliveries will serve a sequence of multiple benefits as they move down the stream. First, water released will generate hydropower at the Stagecoach Dam. Downstream from there, it will be used to boost flow in the instream flow reach upstream of Steamboat. Downstream from there, it will be used to mitigate high temperatures at the Steamboat Springs’ wastewater treatment outfall. Ultimately, flow will continue downstream and be available for agricultural diversions.

The second component of CWT’s Yampa Reservoir Release Program is Elkhead Reservoir. This Reservoir is located on Elkhead Creek, a tributary to the Yampa River, that comes in mid-shank on the shepherd’s crook.  Owned and operated in part by the Colorado River Water Conservancy District (CRWCD), Elkhead Reservoir rings in at 24,778 af. In 2020, CWT purchased 250 af from CRWCD for release to the downstream Endangered Fish Recovery Program (Recovery Program) target reaches. In 2022, CWT anticipates purchasing 650 af from CRWCD for use by the Recovery Program, but if needs be, will also allow the water to be diverted by agricultural producers.

CWT relies on financial support from the Yampa River Fund, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Intel Corporation, and many individual donors. CWT owes much gratitude and appreciation for these funders and its project partners.

At this point, several pieces of the puzzle fit together, hinting at a healthy, flowing Yampa River, but the picture is not complete. CWT and its partners are continuing to evolve their collaboration, seeking efficient, and lasting ways to benefit more of the natural stream and more water users. We will continue to work on this puzzle and look forward to the many moments where two pieces come together and bring the puzzle’s picture that much more into focus.

Written by Alyson Meyer Gould, Colorado Water Trust