April 15, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Jon Lamson | Illustration by Iris Guo

There is a clear difference between the Yampa and Green Rivers when they meet in Echo Park, located in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado. They join at the start of a horseshoe bend, flowing around a sheer sandstone monument named Steamboat Rock that towers over the confluence. Cottonwoods, willows, and red osier dogwood line the sandy outside shore along the bend, surrounded by another vertical canyon wall.

Coming from the east, flowing into the outside of the bend, the Yampa is a muddy brown, completing its 250-mile journey into the Green. Throughout the late summer and early autumn, it is warm enough to swim without much mental fortitude. Along the inside of the bend, the Green is cool and clear, lacking the sediment that gives the Yampa its color. As they meet and flow around Steamboat Rock, a hybrid river is created, running unobstructed to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where it joins with the Colorado River

Such a visible distinction between the two rivers is a relatively recent phenomenon: 65 miles up the Green River from Echo Park stands the Flaming Gorge Dam, 502 feet tall, pushing a reservoir 91 miles back up the river, blocking sediment, high spring runoff, and flood surges. The dam was completed in 1962 as part of the Colorado River Storage Project, which also authorized the construction of an even larger dam in Glen Canyon, downstream on the Colorado River in Arizona.

The flooding of Glen Canyon gained infamy as one of the great cultural and environmental tragedies of American history and helped to galvanize the environmental movement. Edward Abbey, one of the few to float through this portion of the river before it was flooded, eulogized the canyon in his 1968 book “Desert Solitaire.”

“Here was an Eden, a portion of the earth’s original paradise,” he wrote. “To grasp the nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible.”

The Yampa has so far been lucky enough to escape such a fate. Aside from a few smaller upstream reservoirs, the river runs 250 miles largely unimpeded from the Flat Tops Wilderness to Echo Park.

While modern human impacts on the Yampa began in the late 1800s due to European colonization and forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homes, humans have inhabited Colorado for over 10,000 years. Throughout Dinosaur National Monument, there are tools, clothing, jewelry, and petroglyphs dated from 400-800 C.E., attributed to the Uinta Freemont.

The Eastern Shoshone and Cheyenne tribes also inhabited areas around the Yampa river, and most recently the Yampa River Valley was inhabited by the Yamparika, part of the White River Band of Utes. They resided throughout the Yampa and White River Valleys until the late 1800s, when they were forced onto a Utah reservation by the U.S. military and their native land sold to colonizers.

The distinctly American culture of domination and extermination has also devastated the delicate river ecosystems that were built on the seasonal flow cycles in the West’s rivers.

The floods that occur in the spring and summer following large rainstorms are essential to shaping the Yampa, which is always changing, carving new paths within its floodplain. As the river meanders through the valley, flooding events and high spring runoff erode the outsides of bends while depositing sediment on the insides, simultaneously widening the path of the river, and building ‘point bars’ on the inside of curves where sediment is deposited. These widening curves are eventually short-cut, creating ‘oxbow lakes’ as abandoned channels become quiet backwaters.

As the continual shifting of the river’s path creates and destroys habitat, plant communities are quick to take advantage of newly deposited sediment and nutrients. In oxbow lakes, cattails and rushes move in, creating marshes which in turn provide essential habitat for young native fish. On the gradually deposited point bars, narrowleaf cottonwoods are the first to arrive, their seeds deposited and aided in germination by spring flooding. As these Cottonwoods mature, box elder (a type of maple tree), and red osier dogwood (a red-stemmed shrub) establish populations, creating the dominant riparian forest plant communities.

The wetlands and riparian forests along the Yampa help control flooding, recharge groundwater, and improve water quality. Trees along the banks provide shade and help cool the water during hot summer months. The persistence of these forests also helps maintain the shape of the river by slowing processes of erosion, stabilizing critical aquatic habitats, and providing late-season moisture in the high desert environment.

In constructing mega dams, we flood miles of upstream habitat, while drastically altering the downstream conditions that ecosystems rely on. The consequences of our water use also extend all the way to the sea: the Colorado River delta, formerly a thriving, biodiverse wetland, home to thousands of Cocopah people, is now mostly desert. Only on rare occasions does the river even meet the ocean.

In the increasingly dry American west, water is both the painter and the painting. To control water is to control life itself, and there is little room for error. Water shapes the natural landscape, builds and maintains the ecosystems, supports our culture, ranching, farming, and larger economies, and at the most basic level, keeps us alive. But far too frequently, we have failed to use the American west’s limited water supply in a way that respects all needs.

The underlying, ever-present tragedy in the American west is unavoidable but ought not be paralyzing. There are people, cultures, and ecosystems left to fight for. The hope is also very tangible: dams cannot last forever, and our understanding of how these rivers function as dynamic systems is constantly improving, along with the efficiency of our own water use.

On the Yampa, a coalition of town governments, businesses, and Non-Governmental Organizations recently launched the Yampa River Fund, an endowment with the goal of preserving flow in the Yampa during the driest periods, restoring habitat, and improving irrigation infrastructure. This type of community collaboration, based on a shared recognition of the value in a healthy Yampa River, will be essential moving forward.

At the same time, climate change threatens the limited water supply, and new development projects loom over the sacred land and ecology that remains.

The image of Echo Park, with the depleted waters of the Green and the hope of the Yampa running into each other, encapsulates these simultaneous emotional forces better than words ever could; there is much to mourn, yet even more left to save and resuscitate. There is no reason to think that the perseverance of this dynamic river system is incompatible with human prosperity. Instead, these outcomes seem to be inseparable, when thinking beyond our most immediate interests.

At the point where the Yampa and Green meet, the rivers do not initially mix together. The visibly distinct waters are each seemingly intent on running their own course. But now they are just one river, in one canyon, with one final destination that neither has much chance of reaching. Their fates are intertwined, with no choice but to slowly merge into one, traveling toward the sea.

This piece is an edited and condensed version of a longform essay written for The Nature Conservancy in the summer of 2020.

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