Yampa River Early autumn on the Yampa River as it runs through Steamboat. © Lauryn Wachs/TNC

Stories in Colorado

Keeping Colorado Rivers Flowing

We must act now to protect water for the future. Learn how TNC is working to protect rivers and sustain our water supply.

Even in a year with plenty of rain and snow, our water in Colorado is scarce. As our population grows, the demand for water is increasing and straining our rivers and reservoirs. Meanwhile, climate change is making droughts more frequent and severe. The future of our water is uncertain at best.

The challenge with water is that there’s no silver-bullet solution that addresses all of the state’s needs. To improve Colorado’s water future, we need many different approaches to water sharing and management, coordination among a wide range of partners and innovation in policy and funding.

Water funds are one of our big ideas to address water issues, and the launch of the Yampa River Fund was a huge accomplishment for our water. On top of that, we are pursuing many other tangible solutions to keep our rivers flowing and our cities and communities thriving.

Scenes from the official launch of the Yampa River Fund on September 19, 2019.
Yampa River Scenes from the official launch of the Yampa River Fund on September 19, 2019. © Lauryn Wachs/TNC

Yampa River Fund

September 2019 saw the official launch of the Yampa River Fund! This community-based initiative will identify and fund ways to protect the water supply, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities on the Yampa River.

The Fund will invest in projects to ensure that a healthy, flowing Yampa River is the center of our community for generations to come.

It will provide funding for:

  1. Water leases from reservoirs to enhance river flows
  2. Restoration to improve streamside and aquatic habitat
  3. Irrigation improvements that will benefit ranchers, recreationists and river health

Supported by local partners like Smartwool, Friends of the Yampa, ranchers, municipalities and others, this Fund ushers in a new era of conservation for the Yampa River.

Quote: Jen McLaren

“At Smartwool, we believe in protecting the places where we play and fostering a love of the outdoors for future generations. The Yampa River Fund helps us do just that by protecting one of our free-flowing rivers.

President and CEO, Smartwool

San Miguel River

The San Miguel flows from the mountains above Telluride into the canyons of the Dolores River. It is one of the most ecologically intact rivers in the state. To keep enough water flowing in the river for the fish and wildlife that rely on it, we need to use flexible water management. This year, we negotiated our first water transaction on this river. This means that a large ranch will strategically fallow its land in exchange for compensation, using less water and allowing more to remain in the river. This is a way to increase river flows and build relationships in this region for future water conservation projects.

Partnering with Tribes

In southwest Colorado, we are supporting water management and conservation activities initiated by the local tribes. We are contributing our science and project management expertise in partnership with a tribe that owns water rights on a tributary of the San Juan River. This collaboration is part of a larger effort in the Colorado River Basin to support the voice, choice and action of indigenous peoples. Collaborating with the tribe, we developed a return flow study to support decisions on water transactions and produced an ecological benefits analysis. With these tools, tribal staff and leadership can compare the ecological benefits of different water transactions and projects and make an informed decision about how to manage their water resources for the future.

Nancy Smith, TNC’s external affairs director for the Colorado River Program, speaks to the crowd at the Yampa River Fund launch.
Yampa River Fund Nancy Smith, TNC’s external affairs director for the Colorado River Program, speaks to the crowd at the Yampa River Fund launch. © Tim Murphy Photography Inc. 2019

Crop Shifting on the Dolores River

Agriculture uses the majority of the water in the Colorado River basin. Transitioning to crops that use less water can be an effective way for farmers to leave more water in rivers, to increase their income, and to improve long-term sustainability for agriculture. But switching crops isn’t simple or straightforward. Farmers must consider whether they will have access to a market, the ability to store and transport the crop, and the resources and climate to support its cultivation.

TNC is working closely with the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project to explore the potential of bringing back heritage apple orchards in the Dolores River basin. We are aiming to help MORP revive the local apple market and develop capacity in Cortez to press apples into juice for hard cider. This project will enable us to better understand the potential for developing new orchards in the area. This partnership will highlight water savings, restore historic apple orchards, and showcase a promising crop switching model.

These projects are just a few of the many ways TNC is working to protect rivers and sustain our water supply into the future. Colorado’s water woes will only grow worse as climate change causes longer, more intense droughts, wildfires, and heat waves. We must act now to protect our future –and each of these projects is moving us in the right direction.