After the summer of 2022 saw the river close, reopen and close again in the span of two weeks, officials have crafted a river reopening strategy that seeks to limit short-term closures.
After two consecutive days with water temperatures exceeding 75 degrees in the summer of 2022, Steamboat Springs officials closed the Yampa River to recreation. Tubing and other commercial outfitters had to stop operations and the public was asked to refrain from entering the water.
But when water temperatures dipped back below 75 degrees and the river didn’t immediately reopen, some outfitters criticized the city and asked for clearer reopening criteria. The river would reopen to all but fishing a week later after a cool rain dropped water temperatures to 59 degrees. The fishing closure remained another three days to give fish a bit more time to recover.
A few days later the river would be closed again after water temperatures exceeded 75 degrees for four consecutive days. As he decided to close the river for a second time, Steamboat Springs City Manager Gary Suiter told Steamboat Pilot & Today that there had to be a better way to manage this.
“It seems silly that we have to go through the controversy every year when we should be able to come up with an agreeable solution,” Suiter said.
On Tuesday night, city parks staff presented an updated river reopening strategy that hopes to be that solution, utilizing a new river forecasting model to better anticipate when the river may need to close and when it is ready to reopen for recreation. City Council signaled support for the new strategy during Tuesday’s work session and staff are working to put it in place before this summer.
The river forecasting model was designed by Lotic Hydrological, a consultant hired by the city last year. One of the key parts of the new strategy is limiting short-term closure and reopening cycles — like what happened in 2022. Biologists say a quick return to recreation after warm water or low flows doesn’t give fish and other aquatic life enough time to recover.
Seth Mason with Lotic said the forecasting model and decision-making framework would allow city staff to give the community a better idea of what metrics are going into the decision to keep the river closed while ensuring the appropriate steps are taken to protect aquatic health.
“These tools in aggregate are intended to further the city’s goals protecting aquatic life in the river, enhancing opportunities for straightforward communication with outfitters and the public and to make the process for river reopening more predictable,” Mason said.
The forecasting model is still not a hard yes or no metric that some outfitters had been asking for. Pete Van De Carr, owner of the largest tubing operation in town at Backdoor Sports, said during public comment Tuesday he wasn’t in favor of the model, saying he felt it was designed to keep the river closed for longer periods.
“We have never, as outfitters, had a problem with a short-term closure,” Van De Carr said. “We’re using a service to produce a desired outcome. … We wanted them to come up with science to reduce the frequency of short-term closures.”
The policy proposed still gives the city control to decide when the river should reopen, meaning there is no single metric or combination of them that would require reopening. But Parks staff say the model will increase transparency on how decisions are being made and set better expectations.
“Before, we had our criteria — maybe some of the public knew, maybe they didn’t,” said Craig Robinson, the city’s parks, open space and trails manager. “Now we have a report, we have a methodology, we have a reopening process and we have this model. … It might be refined, but that is the best tool that we have today.”
Caption: This is the decision-making framework city staff will use when considering how to respond to river conditions. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)
Under the new policy, the closure metrics are the same as they were before. Two consecutive days of 75 degrees or more, flows dropping below 85 cubic feet per second at the Fifth Street Bridge or dissolved oxygen levels dropping below 6 mg/l for 48 hours.
The forecasting model itself is based on metrics including flows at three locations, water temperature at two locations, weather factors like humidity and air temperature, and the time of year. It then uses these metrics to forecast flows and water temperatures for the coming days. Exactly how far out the model should look is still being considered.
How to act on any given day would be guided by a decision-making web that requires city staff to consider current conditions and the river forecast in additional consultation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Robinson said staff are considering the best way to communicate each of these steps to the public, so they know when the model projects the river could reopen or what metrics have officials wanting to keep the waterway shuttered.
“That’s what we’re anticipating putting on some sort of public-facing website,” Robinson said.
Top Photo Caption: A canoer paddles down the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)