The Yampa River Awareness Project, which recently wrapped up its thirteenth trip, just might be the hottest ticket in river running.
The organizations behind the river float trip — Friends of the Yampa, American Rivers and OARS river outfitter — bring together 25 influential people in water and throw everyone in six rubber rafts for a high-water run.
The Yampa River begins about 21 miles, as the crow flies, southwest of Steamboat Springs. From Steamboat, it then flows west for 250 miles across northern Colorado and into Dinosaur National Monument. It joins the Green River, which carves through Canyonlands, where it meets the Colorado River.
The Yampa, the last untamed and undammed river of size in the Colorado River system, is the beating heart of the Green and Colorado rivers down to Lake Powell.
We’ve come together under the stark reality that demand for fresh water in the West continues to rise even though there is 20% less water in Western rivers now than was average through the 20th Century. Forecasts predict that due to climate change, the Colorado River Basin will carry 20% less water in 2050 than it does now. Scientists are calling it the aridification of the West, and it has very real consequences.
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To be sure, there are many problems, but people are here on the Yampa run to talk about solutions, among other things. Top water officials acknowledged that, at the core, we have to use less water and be smarter about how we use the limited supply we do have. The real difficulty is having the courage and willpower to put those solutions in place.
The float down the Yampa allowed everyone, some who had never been on a multi-day river trip, to forge their own unique connection to the canyons. To swim in an icy river for the first time; to lay eyes on ancient petroglyphs and pictographs; to enter Signature Cave, once home to Ancestral Puebloans, where Civil War veteran Pat Lynch lived as a hermit with a pet mountain lion.
We took part in the tradition of kissing the 1,000-foot sheer face Tiger Wall, named for the stripes of manganese that stripe it. We camped under the same cottonwood groves that once sheltered Major John Wesley Powell, the one-armed explorer who first mapped these rivers in the 1800s. We shared drinks around a campfire while stories went on through the star-filled nights.
There was much talk about the Colorado Compact, an agreement about water allocation signed by seven basin states in 1922, when there was far more water in the system, and how the management framework must be renegotiated by 2026 —essentially who gets how much, and when. We also contemplated one of the high-wire decisions water managers face: How do we balance between agriculture, municipal, tribal, industrial and recreational uses? Everyone has valid claims, but with the warming of the West, is there enough to go around?
Over lunch of tuna salad, a museum director and renowned paleontologist spoke to us about his love of rocks and the intricate folds of the Weber Formation, a body of rock that spans Utah and Colorado. A tribal water manager from the Jicarilla Apache Nation explained the predicament of Colorado River Basin Tribes, who have little access to their water because they have no formal seat at the table.
We visited a gravel bar that is the only spawning ground for the endangered Colorado Pikeminnow in this reach of the river. I swam in the frigid waters at the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers at Echo Park following the exact line where the two rivers meet.
Our expert guides from OARS are perhaps the best stewards of the river because they’ve got some skin in the game: they live on it everyday. They set the standard for observing protocols, tending to campsites and working in tandem with the National Park Service.
At our last lunch on the fifth day, we went around and shared what we learned, but more importantly, what we are going to do to keep the Yampa wild. Everyone spoke of how they were profoundly moved by the experience – changed in some way on the inside. We were of the river now. Not spectators in its journey, but participants who rode its thalweg, slept on its beaches and lived its history.
I’d like to think that as we dozed off under the sway of an old cottonwood with the river swinging sweet songs, a purling lullaby, the Yampa River laid bare her secrets. That her heart of wild water beats throughout the American West, and now within us.
Matthew Moseley lives in Boulder.
NOTE: The original version of this guest column in correctly located the headwaters of the Yampa River. A correction was made on July 2 at 5:27 p.m.
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