In many parts of the country, it’s easy to forget how our rivers are the backbone of our communities, providing water and so much more. Not so in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Here, the Yampa River curls through the heart of town, providing water for agriculture, native fish and wildlife, and a bustling outdoor recreation scene.
Keeping our drinking water clean and our rivers healthy is one of TNC’s top priorities. The quality of our drinking water depends on the landscapes surrounding our rivers.
Around the world, 40 percent of the rivers that supply drinking water to the world’s cities flow through degraded landscapes.
“When we say ‘degraded’, we mean that water quality and river health have been negatively impacted in ways that hurt both people and wildlife,” says Nancy Smith of TNC’s Colorado River Program. “Luckily, we can often reverse these trends.”
By improving the health of the lands around our water sources, we can improve water quality, restore reliable water flows and bring added benefits, like boosting agricultural productivity, to local wildlife and communities.
Surrounded by sagebrush-shrouded hills and dense groves of aspen and pine, the Yampa is the last free-flowing river in the Colorado River Basin. The Yampa valley is home to iconic wildlife—bears, elk, mountain lion, greater sage grouse and more—and the river sustains four endangered species of native fish.
The Yampa River basin is also home to generations of ranchers and farmers who have a long history of land stewardship. For them, the river provides more than just water for crops and livestock. It is central to the identity and way of life that define the valley.
Residents aren’t the only ones who appreciate the river. People who love outdoor recreation come from all over to explore the Yampa valley. Whether they’re into fishing, rafting, hiking or skiing, the river is central to the beauty and adventure they find here. Outdoor recreation and tourism are a boon to the local economy.
But, as the locals know well, the future of the Yampa River is threatened.
Like many rivers in the West, the Yampa is being impacted by rising temperatures and increasing drought conditions due to climate change. In summer 2018, for the first time in history, water levels got so low that some people were shut off from their water supply for several months.
As the effects of climate change escalate, hotter temperatures will continue to affect the Yampa. This will put both the health of the river and the local economy at risk.
That’s why we’re creating a water fund to keep the Yampa running strong. The basic premise of a water fund is that water users and stakeholders provide funding to support conservation and restoration activities to protect their water supply, water quality and improve the health and wellbeing of local communities. TNC is working with cities and partners around the world to create water funds—right now, we have 34 water funds operating in 11 countries.
“You could think of it like a bank account, although it’s much more than that,” explains Smith. “It brings all the competing interests to the table and gives them a way to agree on a vision for the future, establish priorities and create a funding mechanism to make those priorities a reality.”
The goals of the Yampa River Fund will be to improve the efficiency of water use for agriculture, increase the amount of water flowing in the river through water leases, and restore native plants and wildlife habitat along the river.
The Yampa River Fund is a true community-driven effort. While TNC has been spearheading the process, the project brings together more than 20 different groups from the Yampa valley and surrounding areas.
The partnership includes agriculture producers, outdoor recreation businesses, the City of Steamboat Springs, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, Routt and Moffat counties, local nonprofits and more, all collaborating to develop a water fund that works for this community. Smartwool was an initial seed funder of the Yampa River Fund and continues to provide strong support for the Fund.
If we do our part now to protect this wild river, we can make the future a little brighter for the river and the many people who depend on it.