Sunset on the Yampa River at Carpenter Ranch in Northwest Colorado.
Yampa River Sunset on the Yampa River at Carpenter Ranch in Northwest Colorado. © John Fielder

Stories in Colorado

Yampa River Fund

A new partnership will keep the Yampa running strong for decades to come.

Northwest Colorado plays host to one of the most crucial water sources in the state: the Yampa River. The Yampa is the last relatively free-flowing major river in the Colorado River Basin. It is central to the people and wildlife in the Yampa River Valley for everything from local agriculture and supplying water to towns like Steamboat Springs to outdoor activities and the businesses that rely on tourism.

Like many rivers in the region, the Yampa has been negatively impacted by rising temperatures and increased drought. The changing climate has decreased water flow and increased water temperatures. Last summer for the first time in history, there was a “call” on the river, shutting some people off from their water supply.

These trends will continue to adversely affect the Yampa for the foreseeable future, putting both the health of the river and the local economy at risk.

Fortunately, The Nature Conservancy, in a new partnership with a diverse coalition of organizations, has plans to keep the Yampa running strong for decades to come. The Yampa River Fund is a collaborative effort that will establish a long-term endowment for this Colorado waterway that so many rely upon. 

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.

TNC’s Colorado River Program

What Is a Water Fund?

A water fund is a governance and financial structure geared toward maintaining and improving an important water source.

“A water fund is much more than just a bank account,” explains Nancy Smith of TNC’s Colorado River Program. “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.”

So far, TNC has created 34 water funds in 11 different countries. One of the most successful is New Mexico’s Rio Grande Water Fund, which serves as an example of the transformative power that these types of funds can have for the communities they serve. 

A mix of fall colors in the wetlands and Cottonwood groves of the Yampa River basin on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch, west of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Restoring Native Plants One of the short-term actions of the Yampa River Fund will be to plant trees along the Yampa’s banks to help cool the water in the summer heat. © Mark Godfrey/TNC

Goals of the Yampa River Fund

Each of the following goals is backed by scientific research, ensuring that the money raised for the river will be spent in the most effective ways:

  • Increase the amount of water flowing in the river through water leases. During the dry season, usually in late summer and early fall, the Yampa reaches its lowest point. To offset this, the fund will help pay for strategic releases from the Stagecoach and Elkhead reservoirs. These releases improve the health and strength of the river, particularly during those seasons when it is most vulnerable.
  • Improve agricultural irrigation infrastructure and management. No matter the method, the end goal remains the same: to ensure producers are getting all the water they need while leaving as much in the river as possible. At first, updates to river diversions used by agriculture producers will be the primary focus of the fund.
  • Restore native plants and wildlife habitat along the river. In the near term, the fund will tackle planting trees along the Yampa’s banks to help cool the water in the summer heat.

Who Is Involved?

The Yampa River Fund is truly a community-driven effort. While TNC has been at the helm of the project in its formative stages, the coalition brings together more than 20 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 NGOs, among a variety of others, all of whom have collaborated to create the fund—and who will shepherd it into the future.