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  • Dylan Anderson

Steamboat bans sale of cheap river tubes, overhauls outfitter permitting in series of Yampa River ordinances

Ordinances passed Tuesday also remove a requirement for tubers to carry a mesh bag on the river and implement a new system for how to open and close the river to recreation.

Steamboat Springs City Council passed three Yampa River-related ordinances on Tuesday that hope to protect and improve river health and a fourth that will overhaul how outfitters are permitted to operate on the river.

The ordinances have been in the works for more than a year and were in part spurred by the frequent opening and closing of the river in the summer of 2022.

New ordinances include a band on low-quality river tubes, updated reopening procedures and the repeal of a requirement for recreators to carry a mesh bag. The fourth ordinance makes a significant update to the way outfitters are permitted on the river — particularly as it pertains to commercial tubing operations.


Outfitter permits overhaul

Starting in 2025, Steamboat Springs will utilize a new process to permit commercial outfitters on the Yampa River that would award permits for a three-year term.

Currently, these permits — especially tubing permits — are seen as property by some outfitters who have purchased competing businesses over the years to acquire more permits. The city asserts these are not property though, as they could be revoked at any time. The current process has prevented any new outfitter from trying to rent tubes.

“We’re really trying to establish a transparent process here for awarding outfitter permits,” Burdine said.

Every three years outfitters will need to apply for these permits, which will be awarded based on that outfitter’s history of river stewardship, among other factors. Exactly how these permits will be given out is still being worked out.

The ordinance clarifies that permits are not property and that they will not transfer when a business is sold anymore. In these cases, Burdine said the buyer would need to apply for a new permit and he recommended doing that before closing on a sale.

“This specific change is to help increase the transparency of the process, as well as the fairness of the process to ensure that outfitters have more of a fair chance at receiving permits,” said Council member Dakotah McGinlay.


Ban on low-quality tubes

The new ordinances include a ban on the sale of so-called “disposable” river tubes, which the Parks Department says often end up in the trash or worse, on the banks of the river. This measure requires any tube sold in Steamboat to be at least 28-gauge, a thickness determined by dragging parks employees on tubes across a patch of scoria.

“We do have support from pretty much everyone, including those bigger box stores that sell those low-quality tubes,” said Deputy Parks Director Rob Burdine. “They think this is a good thing we are doing for the river.”

Burdine said many of the local shops were not selling thinner tubes anyway, with bigger stores like Walmart being the primary source of “low-quality” tubes.

The ordinance does not restrict what kind of tube can be used in the Yampa River, just what can be sold in town. Residents using thinner tubes they already have or that are purchased online (or outside of Steamboat) would not be violating the new ordinance.


Updated reopening strategy

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.

In January, 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.

“The forecast too is going provide us with the view of future water temperatures and steam flows and other criteria,” Burdine said. “Our decision-making framework is structured and repeatable to give us a consistent decision-making process.”

The new framework will go into effect this summer and council members asked that Parks staff report back in the fall to see of the tool worked in the first year.


Repeal of mesh bag requirement

Another ordinance removes a requirement that had been in place to carry a mesh bag while tubing the river. The intent of this requirement was to prevent trash from being left in the river, but it has actually has the opposite effect in some cases. Burdine said most outfitters recommend their customers don’t bring anything with them on the river.

“We now have a disposable container ban, so it is kind of obsolete at this point,” Burdine said.

Top Photo Caption: Parks staff tested various thicknesses of river tubes by dragging them across a patch of scoria. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)


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