Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials announced Monday they are closing a popular stretch of the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir dam to prevent overfishing during the drought, an early sign that extremely dry conditions will challenge the Western Slope this summer.
The state will close a 0.6 mile of the Yampa between the dam and the boundary of Stagecoach State Park south of Steamboat Springs, beginning Tuesday and lasting indefinitely, Parks and Wildlife spokesman Travis Duncan said. Water releases into the Yampa are “critically low” at only 20% of average for this time of year and will fall below 15%, endangering fish from high water temperatures and lack of food.
While the Front Range and much of eastern Colorado have enjoyed ample early rainfall and a healthy snowpack in key river basins east of the Continental Divide, parts of northwest and southwest Colorado snowpack are around 30% of normal. Water users from alfalfa farmers to ranchers to float companies are seeing allocations cut by 90% in southwest Colorado, and are making deep cuts to irrigated acres.
The same stretch of the Yampa has closed in other years as runoff trickles down later in the summer, but state officials and local angling guides could not remember the Stagecoach area closing this early in the season.
“I’ve never seen it ever close this early in my life. I’ve never seen the conditions we’re at, at this moment, it scares me to death,” said Ryan Herbert, who owns Yampa Valley Anglers with his wife, Beth, and guides up and down the river for rainbow, brown and brook trout.
“That’s really, really early,” said Andy Schultheiss, executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, which has helped negotiate purchases and releases of relief water from Stagecoach in previous summers. They started past purchase-and-release programs in July or August. “To announce closures and it’s still May is remarkable, it’s a really bad year. I feel terrible for their recreation industry.”
“For it to happen this early is pretty rare,” Duncan said.
Herbert said he is glad the state is proactively managing river resources and trying to protect them for the long term. But closing the popular stretch will push more anglers downriver into other state-managed areas that will also be low on water. The river is a primary draw for all kinds of visitors who spend money in the valley, he said.
“They can’t fish, they can’t tube,” Herbert said. “People don’t want to come up here to a dry stream.”
In extremely low stream flows, fish are pushed into smaller and smaller pools, where they compete for food and become easier targets for anglers. The state is trying to “protect the outstanding catch-and-release fishery we have downstream of Stagecoach Reservoir,” said parks and wildlife area aquatic biologist Bill Atkinson, in a release.
The state said it will work with Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns Stagecoach, on the same kind of cooperative, river-friendly releases they’ve done in the past, but that they wouldn’t happen until later in the year.
“This stretch of the river receives a tremendous amount of fishing pressure, especially in the spring when other resources might not be as accessible,” Atkinson said. “This emergency closure is an effort to protect the resource by giving the fish a bit of a reprieve.”
Atkinson said the Yampa has not seen the usual “spike” in spring water flow that usually gives fish protection and allows them to build back energy after the spring spawn.
Trout Unlimited’s Colorado division said it supports the closure given “the meager snowpack and low streamflow conditions just a few days before the traditionally high-water Memorial Day weekend,” spokesman Scott Willoughby said, in an email. “Despite the abundance of precipitation along Colorado’s Front Range and eastern plains this spring, we remain very concerned about the persistent drought and climatic conditions over here on the West Slope, and are working to find efficiencies wherever possible.”
Anglers violating the closure below the dam can be cited.
The extreme Western Slope drought areas mean state officials will monitor other streams carefully for similar stress and possible action, Duncan said.
“We’re going to be watching it throughout the summer, there’s definitely a possibility for further closures,” he said.
Other streams that have more runoff should be available for anglers as soon as high waters recede to normal, Duncan said. Anglers can also turn their attention to lakes. The state has suggestions for other fishing locations in northwest Colorado on its website.
Even in areas where the snowpack was decent in the northwest, Schultheiss said, ground is so dry and plants are so stressed from recent drought and higher temperatures that they have soaked up runoff before it reaches streams and reservoirs. Stressed plants need even more water as temperatures climb above normal in late summer.
“Climate change just makes that all the worse,” he said.
Herbert said he doesn’t see his guiding business hurt badly from the current closure, but he worries what it means for the rest of the year, and for years to come.
“That’s the scary part, the wildfires that could be possible after the record fires last year. We had more snowpack then than we do now,” Herbert said.