By: Sophie Dingle

“In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything,” US Representative Wayne Aspinall once said.

The famous remark of the politician who hailed from Colorado couldn’t be more true, both then and now.

Deep in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, the Yampa River originates in the Flat Tops Wilderness area, southwest of Steamboat Springs. It flows 250 miles West until it eventually meets up with the Green River, just five miles away from the Colorado Utah border.

In Steamboat, the Yampa River is the heart and soul of the community, its livelihood and its lifeblood.

As Lindsey Marlow, executive director of the local organization Friends of the Yampa, pointed out, “water is why communities are created in the West. Without it there is no population or ability to support one, so in short, water is community.”

Yampa River Kayaking
The multi-use river is perfect for kayaking, tubing, fishing and more. Image: Kent Vertrees

And we must protect our community. Currently, the biggest challenge facing the Yampa River is both simple and complex at the same time: lack of water.

“Water availability affects everything that is challenging to the river,” explained aquatics biologist Bill Atkinson. “When you have very low water, it impacts the fish – native fish and sport fish throughout the upper and middle basin, it affects the temperature which is directly related to flow and low flow means elevated temperature. It affects vegetation issues – whether environmental or agriculture – and it affects river closures. It all circles back to water availability.”

It also affects tourism and recreation for Steamboat locals and visitors alike. Between tubing, rafting, fishing, and swimming, the Yampa has been a constant source of recreation for this mountain town. And this year, the river has already been designated as over appropriated which means that there isn’t enough water in the system to meet existing demands.

The overarching issue of climate change often feels intangible and leaves us feeling hopeless as we pray for more snow each winter. As Nicole Seltzer, of the organization River Network, points out, “there’s probably not too much that the 20,000 people who live in Routt County can do to combat climate change so it’s more about how we adapt to it.”

Yampa River Scorecard Project
The new Yampa River Scorecard Project aims to identify problems and solutions in different areas of the river as well as educate the larger community on river issues in a fun, understandable way. Image: Kent Vertrees

With drought years increasing and the climate becoming warmer, the amount of available water in the community is changing and adaptation is necessary.

How do we work together? How do we have a mindset of giving a little and not taking? These are the questions that Marlow ponders each day in her work with Friends of the Yampa. The group was formed in 1981 with the bold mission to help protect and enhance the environmental and recreational integrity of the river. In addition to organizing river clean ups, educating on the river’s attributes, building river habitats and fundraising, the nonprofit is in the process of launching their new Yampa River Scorecard Project.

The innovative project seeks to include the community in river-related issues and management, teach river science – in a fun and friendly way – and ensure that the Yampa remains conserved and natural. It’s a necessary and bold idea to make sure that the community can use and enjoy the river for decades to come.

The Yampa River
The Yampa River is often called the heart and soul of Steamboat Springs and the lifeblood of the community. Image: Friends of the Yampa

“We cannot assure the future unless we track where we are and where we are going,” said Marlow.


The scorecard has three main goals: to serve as a source of long-term monitoring of the river’s conditions and track changes over time; to present data in a visually appealing and easily digestible way to foster engagement with the larger community and to provide a resource that helps inform future river management projects and decisions.

The first round of field work will take place this summer, focusing on the middle part of the river which flows from Hayden to Craig, and the report will be released at the beginning of next year.

“The community is becoming more aware and that is our goal,” said Marlow. “When more people are aware of the problem and prioritize addressing the problem, that knowledge and care is spread to others. We know that efforts and studies need to be communicated to the local and greater communities and they need to be conveyed with hope and respect.”

After all, Marlow points out, water brings so much more than being the keystone to the establishment of a community. A river provides health benefits – both physical and mental – as well as a gathering point or a place to slip away to for a quiet moment of reflection.

“Everything comes back to water – more water,” said Atkinson. “The river is the life blood of the community.”