June 2013: When I received an email thread asking for volunteers to run a shuttle and join Friends of the Yampa on the second half of this year’s Yampa River Awareness Project, I quickly jumped at the opportunity. Friends of the Yampa is a nonprofit advocacy group whose mission is to “protect and enhance the environmental and recreational integrity of the Yampa River and its tributaries through stewardship, advocacy, education and partnerships.” Each year they put on a Yampa River Awareness Project where they host policy makers, authors, journalists, scholars and fellow advocates on a raft trip down the Yampa River.
I was to drive in to Mantle Ranch to meet the group and swap places with Pat Tierney, professor and chair of the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism department at San Francisco State University , so he could drive out and catch a plane the next day. Mantle Ranch is one of two private in-holdings in Dinosaur National Monument, and the only one on the shore of the Yampa River.
The drive from my home in Steamboat Springs took me through parts of the Desert West that few people visit. Leaving a day early and camping on the rim of Yampa Canyon afforded me the opportunity to arrive early to Mantle Ranch, walk the property and visit with its manager, Tom Seewald for a few hours before the O.A.R.S.-led group arrived.
A one-man operation with 150 head of cattle, 15 acres of hay and alfalfa and a couple dozen fruit trees, Tom has his hands full. With his help over the past decade the farm has transformed from a rocky sand bar to a fertile in-holding in some of the most remote country around.
Time flew listening to Tom’s descriptions of his biodynamic practices, in which he follows astronomical cycles for his fertilizing schedule, and uses what he calls a biodynamic digester to turn plain river water into a potent compost through an exacting process that boarders between metaphysics and science. The practice appears to work, considering Tom just finished putting up his first cutting and it was only June 9th.
Yampa Canyon contains numerous sites where the ancient Fremont People shared their experiences through images of birds, lizards, sheep, elk and bears, as well as primitive human figures adorned with various styles of headdresses and jewelry. Pat Tierney shared his extensive knowledge of the Fremont People and the history of the area.
Finally on the river and the content-rich discussion of the Yampa River’s fate and the volatile nature of water in the greater western United States was already making my head spin.
Jumping into the water offered a refreshing escape from the sweltering heat of the desert and provided a change of perspective. While the water is cooler than the ambient temperature of the sweltering desert, the water of the Yampa River runs warm. This is largely due to its free-flowing nature. Other similar western rivers run unnaturally cold; one of many undesirable side effects of our Nation’s mid-century dam building frenzy. Its free-flowing nature is one of the features that make the Yampa River unique in a region where anything that’s wet has been dammed.
On the second day of my portion of the trip, we passed through Echo Park and the proposed site of a dam that would have flooded every inch of the canyon that we had seen up to then. We stopped for lunch on a sandy bank that was likely deposited during one of the recent high water episodes.
Mealtime on the river is a unique experience. Our O.A.R.S. guides, Bruce and Russell, routinely demonstrated their culinary skills, serving up appetizers of crackers with various dips, cheeses and cured meats, entrees fit for any restaurant, and exceptional desserts that induced post-meal naps, and today was no exception. The warm sand, cool breeze, and shady cliff overhang lulled many members of the group into a cozy food-coma. Stirring from our post-lunch group nap, we again hit the river.
Approximately 65 miles down stream from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Echo Park is where the Yampa River meets with the Green River, meaning we were now floating on a regimented river. Echo Park, and the battle to stop the proposed dam within its boundaries, stands as a tipping point in the history of the American environmental movement.
The successful opposition to the Echo Park Reservoir by the Sierra Club, led by David Brower, signified a shift in national consciousness and a change of our collective understanding of conservation.
Up until then engineers and Bureau executives used the word conservation to describe their intentions in damming and controlling wild rivers. After the dust settled from the highly contentious, and very public battle over Echo Park Dam, the word conservation became synonymous with preserving the wild nature of undammed rivers. To be able to experience such a river firsthand affirms the importance of protecting the Yampa River as the last free-flowing river in the West.
However, work on this front is not through. There continue to be threats to this gem of natural hydrology from all sides, and addressing these threats is the purpose of the Yampa River Awareness Project.
As the number of water users continues to grow, including municipalities, industries, agriculture and the natural environment, and the supply continues to dwindle due to climate change, inefficient management and use, and other external forces, the stresses on the Colorado River race towards a tipping point. The effectiveness of the laws that govern these users comes into question.
Governed by a series of laws, policies and agreements collectively known as the “Law of the River,” the water in the Colorado River, and by extension, the Yampa and Green Rivers, is allocated by what is known as “prior appropriation.” Under this system the first users to put the water to “beneficial use” reserve the right to that water.
Established before the west was developed, this system has long been outdated and does not take into consideration non-human users such as fish, wildlife, trees and other plants.
Humans have only been using the water of the Colorado River for a short amount of time compared to the native flora and fauna. Fish such as the ancient and endangered Bony Tail, Humpback Chub, Colorado Pike Minnow and Razorback Sucker have been putting the water to beneficial use for eons.
Only in recent history have the needs of non-human users been considered. Beginning with a 1963 Supreme Court decision, Arizona v. California, which placed Indian reserved water rights and federal reserved water rights before those users previously at the head of the line. Federal law began to displace state laws and the federal government shifted its role from financer of large infrastructure projects, to protector of natural resources.
Numerous legislation of this nature followed, including the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species act of 1973, and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.
After spending three days with such passionate and knowledgeable river advocates, I felt like I had a better grasp on the issue at hand. And although the subject of water worries at times became overwhelming, the adventurous nature of floating on a wild river kept a playful tone throughout.
It is the hope of Friends of the Yampa, and the mission of the Yampa River Awareness Project to use these non-human concerns, as well as the intrinsic value of a natural flowing river, to justify protecting the Yampa River as the last free-flowing river forever.