Yampa River Trip Journal: Day 2

June 2013

Yampa River from Wagon Wheel Point. Photo: Amy Kober

Rivers move much more than water. One of their primary jobs is to move sediment — from giant boulders to cobbles, gravel, sand, and silt. This is how they sculpt landscapes and carve canyons, building habitat like beaches, sand bars, and back channels for fish, birds, and wildlife.

We eat lunch today on a cobble bar where it’s hard to count the many colors and shades of stone — from pinks and reds and purples to yellows, browns, and grays.

The river is running a little over 4,000 cubic feet per second– a typical level for this time of year. But last year, flows were so low (just 5 percent of normal in June) that the river’s water quality, fish and wildlife, and recreation were threatened. Fortunately, the Colorado Water Trustbrokered a water lease during the critical summer months to restore flows, protecting fish and the recreation economy.

At the other end of the spectrum, 2011 was a big high-water year, with the river reaching 19,000 cfs during spring runoff. A lot of the beaches we’re seeing were built up by those floodwaters.

So those are two important values of a wild Yampa — its ability to transport sand and silt, and its peak flows that build a rich, dynamic ecosystem.

Dr. Pat Tierney. Photo: Susan Bruce

Pat Tierney is Professor and Chair of Recreation, Parks and Tourism at San Fransico State University. And he knows the Yampa better than most, having floated the river 33 years in a row. He sums it up, stating, “In a wild river system, all of the benefits are provided for free.”

When we dam a river we take away those benefits because the sediment clogs up behind the dam. Dams also often shave the peaks off of floods, “flatlining” the river’s flows. So protecting the Yampa in its wild state — preventing any new dam construction — is important.

Charlie Preston-Townsend, a Friends of the Yampa board member, explains that with most other rivers in the Colorado Basin already dammed and diverted, the Yampa provides a “control” — a reminder of what these rivers were, what they should be, and what they could be again.

In the afternoon we hike up Bull Canyon to Wagon Wheel Point. It’s hot and dry, and the shady spots in the lush side canyon feel good. At Wagon Wheel, 5,000 feet above the river, we peer over the edge and watch the swallows swoop up to eye level then back down again.

The rapids upstream of our camp look like little crinkles and a line of rafts are tiny specks on the water.

When it comes to rivers, we’re programmed to think cold and clear water is best. And while that’s true in some places, here on the Yampa warm and muddy is the way it should be.

All life here, from the cottonwoods to the pikeminnow, has evolved with the river’s rhythms.

The brown river winding far below is the heartbeat of these canyons. And that’s why we are here — to figure out how to keep it that way.