LRE Water
Posted On March 22, 2021      |      Article By Jessica DiToro

City of Steamboat Springs Yampa River Temperature Regulatory Support

In July of 2018, the City of Steamboat Springs (the City) and Colorado Parks and Wildlife closed the Yampa River to recreation. This excerpt from the City’s July 9, 2018 press release explains: “Due to high water temperatures and low flow in the Yampa River, the City of Steamboat Springs is implementing closures for all commercial activities on the Yampa River and asking the public to abide by a voluntary closure for all recreational river use… The Yampa River experienced water temperatures greater than 75 degrees for two consecutive days, July 7 & 8, which exceeds the threshold for a mandatory river closure as outlined in the Yampa River Management Plan. Low water flows, high water temperatures, and low levels of dissolved oxygen are all unfavorable conditions to aquatic life and any one of these factors can trigger a closure.” The closure was intended to protect the trout and other cold water fish that call the Yampa River their home. Trout function best in waters ranging from 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. When their habitat exceeds 70 degrees, they may stop feeding and their risk of disease increases. Water temperatures upwards of 74 degrees are often fatal for trout, and in July of 2018, eight days were recorded that showed acute stream temperatures exceedings 75 degrees. The temperature issues in the Yampa are extremely complex, and are driven and/or exacerbated by many factors, including low stream flows, climate change, ambient temperatures, lack of riparian shading, and natural hot springs, to name a few. 

LRE Water has been providing technical and regulatory support to the City on temperature matters since 2015, including support in the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) Regulation 93 Rulemaking Hearing (RMH) for Colorado’s Section 303(d) List of Impaired Waters and Monitoring and Evaluation List, temperature monitoring plan development, and temperature data analyses. Most recently, LRE assisted the City in obtaining a temperature temporary modification at the 2019 WQCC Regulation 33 RMH for Classifications and Numeric Standards for the Upper Colorado River Basin and North Platter River.

Jessica Sampling Yampa River

The temporary modification, which is for 30-day average (chronic) temperature standards, applies to the months of July-August and November. To qualify for the temporary modification, the City had to demonstrate that the stream segment was in noncompliance with the underlying temperature standard(s), that the City’s wastewater treatment facility (WWTF) would be unable to meet the predicted water quality-based effluent limits (WQBELs) during the same months that the stream noncompliance occurred, and that there is uncertainty regarding the extent to which the existing quality is the result of natural or irreversible human-induced conditions. While the temporary modification is in place, the City’s WWTF will not have to meet the WQBELs for temperature when it’s permit is renewed, which allows the City time to work to resolve the uncertainty surrounding the instream temperature issue(s) and identify a path forward that will bring the WWTF into compliance with the WQBELs without the pressure of a compliance schedule.   

Every temporary modification is required to include a Plan to Resolve Uncertainty (PTRU), which contains commitments that are identified during the collaborative RMH process. These commitments, when implemented, will help resolve the uncertainty and inform the next steps in the regulatory process. The City’s PTRU identifies seven unique commitments which reflect the City’s unique holistic approach to tackling the Yampa’s temperature issues: 1) conduct an alternatives analysis for the WWTF; 2) continue instream temperature monitoring; 3) identify natural and/or irreversible human induced thermal sources to the Yampa; 4) characterize the highest attainable aquatic life use; 5) refine the water temperature streamflow model; 6) continue to implement strategies to reduce stream temperature (i.e., riparian restoration and tree planting); and 7) implement incentive- and community-based regulatory approaches (i.e., water quality trading). The plan also includes annual reports to the Water Quality Control Division (WQCD) that provide PTRU commitment status updates and the latest instream and WWTF effluent data.

Since the adoption of the temporary modification, the City retained Jacobs Engineering Group to conduct the WWTF alternatives analysis (PTRU Commitment #1) to evaluate the feasibility of bringing the WWTF into compliance with the temperature WQBELs. LRE has provided regulatory support and guidance throughout this process, and the City intends to submit the findings to the WQCD in June of this year. 

The City has also commenced efforts on PTRU Commitment #7 by retaining The Freshwater Trust (TFT) of Portland, Oregon, to develop a temperature trading program for the City. Water quality trading provides permitted point-source dischargers (like the City’s WWTF) the ability to invest in green infrastructure (e.g., riparian restoration) rather than grey infrastructure (e.g., upgrading the WWTF). By implementing green infrastructure that improves water quality in the stream, the discharger can “trade” those improvements to their WWTF to achieve compliance with the WQBELs. As green infrastructure can often be less expensive than grey infrastructure (e.g., planting trees along the Yampa is less expensive than installing and operating a cooling tower at the WWTF) water quality trading can produce substantial cost savings while meeting the water quality goals. Trading is also a more holistic approach to addressing the temperature noncompliance in the Yampa than simply addressing the WWTF’s noncompliance because the water quality benefits will extend above and below the WWTF, when upgrading the WWTF would only result in water quality benefits downstream of the WWTF. Additionally, trading has the potential to provide secondary environmental benefits including, but not limited to, carbon sinks, riparian habitat improvement, and flood retention. While Colorado does have the Colorado Pollutant Trading Policy that was developed in 2004, a trading program has not been implemented in the state for some time, and the policy needs to be updated. TFT has been instrumental in developing and implementing water quality trading policies and programs in the Pacific Northwest, and the City hopes that bringing their expertise to the Yampa River Basin may open the door to implementing similar programs in Colorado. LRE is very excited for the opportunity provide regulatory support to these efforts to bring forth a new era of water quality trading in Colorado.

The City’s temporary modification is set to expire on December 31st of 2024. The City believes that at this time, through executing multiple parallel paths that include continued temperature monitoring, thermal source identification, riparian restoration, potential WWTF upgrades, and the development of a trading program that the Yampa will be well on its way to meeting the underlying water quality temperature standards, and that river closures will be a thing of the past.