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A Colorado water policy group goes rafting to watch the Colorado River system refill

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey, the Rocky Mountains received a lot of snow last winter, and that melting snow has filled the streams that flow into the Colorado River. It is such a change that the surrounding states have paused their negotiations over who gets how much water from a river that has been stressed and is still. Alex Hager with member station KUNC reports from the riverside.

(SOUNBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

ALEX HAGER, BYLINE: Ken Brenner is sitting on the yellow rubber edge of a huge inflatable raft as the boat splashes through the Yampa River.

KEN BRENNER: We're flying along. There's, like, no way in the world you could run this fast along the side of the river.

HAGER: The Yampa cuts through wide sagebrush plains and dramatic red rock canyons in northern Colorado. And this year, it is full. Water is the highest it's been in more than a decade.

BRENNER: Well, it's like a roller coaster, only there's no rail. It's - you're all at the mercy of the water and your helmsman.

HAGER: Brenner grew up on a ranch near the river and now has a role in state water policy. He's one of 30 people on an educational trip down the river where snowmelt is rushing downstream. That leaves a bumpy ride of big rapids, even for an experienced guide like Alyssa Schaffer.

ALYSSA SCHAFFER: Every time we come around the corner, we don't know what to expect. Are we going to see big holes that we have to avoid, or is camp going to be harder to catch? Is there going to be an eddy there? All kinds of unexpected, amazing stuff happening.

HAGER: This year has been an exceptionally wet one across the Southwest. Extraordinary snow in the Rocky Mountains is rushing through the Yampa. Matt Rice, with the conservation group American Rivers, is sitting on its banks.

MATT RICE: We are quite literally being saved by the Yampa basin right now.

HAGER: The Yampa flows into the Colorado River on its way to Lake Powell, which is projected to climb almost 70 feet this year.

RICE: When every molecule of water is important, right? The Yampa is delivering on such a monster scale right now.

SCHAFFER: Lindsey Marlow runs the conservation group Friends of the Yampa and says a wet year means more than just refilling reservoirs.

LINDSEY MARLOW: When we talk about the Greater Colorado system, we really focus on it as, like, a commodity, like we're buying and trading. And we seem to forget the people and the habitats and the animals and the fish along the way.

HAGER: And a lot of that flora and fauna is thriving this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

HAGER: Underwater, endangered native fish are seeing conditions primed for reproduction. And all that water is moving around sediment, creating and maintaining better habitats for them in the future. Marlow says it's facts like those that get lost in big conversations about water management.

MARLOW: We don't know, by changing things and controlling things, how much that affects the greater whole. And when people don't feel the effects, they tend to ignore them.

HAGER: As the region's water managers make decisions about that big picture, they're facing the reality that one wet winter will not save the Colorado River. Even after a big, new agreement to keep more water in reservoirs for the next three years, it'll take more than temporary conservation to support rivers around the West. Audrey Turner, also on this trip, is enjoying a sunny stretch of flat water, a break from the rapids. She's with the Colorado River District, a water policy agency.

AUDREY TURNER: It's important for us to be grateful and appreciate what Mother Nature gave us and recognize that it might not be here again for an unknown period of time.

HAGER: For NPR News, I'm Alex Hager on the Yampa River.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "HOVER II") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alex Hager
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