We had the good fortune of connecting with Mike Robertson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Mike, what do you want your legacy to be?
I’d like to be remembered for having contributed meaningfully to the understanding and general health of river ecosystems in the West. I’ve spent my career working to protect rivers and streams through the study of fish and aquatic insects’ habitat needs and now by working for a nonprofit organization that provides a sustainable funding mechanism to enable projects every year that will contribute to water security and a healthy Yampa River watershed.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
After I graduated with my master’s degree in Fish and Wildlife Science from Texas A&M, I immediately set off for a job working on the Columbia River, based out of Portland Oregon. I had a chance to work on a research project involving survival of salmon as they moved down the river past the various dams. This was a new and amazing experience for a recent graduate who grew up in the South and I loved every minute of it. I followed that up with a short stint working in a lab at Colorado State University where I studied a microscopic nematodes, including those collected in Antarctica. This was very different than any of my previous experiences and opened my eyes to different ecosystems and broadened my perspective to include a more global view, even though I spent way too much time looking through microscopes.
My next position was back in Texas where I spent seven years working in private consulting on projects that included studying the population dynamics of several species of fish, aquatic insects, and aquatic salamanders that are listed on the federal threatened and endangered species lists. The goal was to help mediate the water needs of two major metropolitan areas, San Antonio and Austin, and the potential impacts that the water use was having on these listed species. It was a challenging position to be in and proponents on both sides of the issue were vocal and often unwilling to compromise. While it was often frustrating to be in a position that was criticized from both sides of the issue, it was rewarding to contribute to a workable solution that providing meaningful safeguards to protect each of the species from moving any closer to extinction while also finding ways to accommodate the growing water needs of two major cities. This was a very challenging job, but rewarding to know that I was contributing to solving real world problems at the interface with conflicts on how humanity’s growth directly affects the natural world.
For about 10 years, I worked for the State of Wyoming where I studied the habitat needs of important fisheries in rivers and streams around the state. The goal of my work there was to apply for water rights that would protect the fisheries for future generations under the prior appropriations system of water rights. This is frequently referred to as the first in time, first in right system of allocating water rights. There are many reasons why this system was implemented throughout the Western US, but one consequence is that all water is granted based on its potential usefulness for agriculture, municipal water supply, or other legally recognized uses. There are no provisions that require some portion of the water to be retained in the river or stream, so in order to protect an important fishery and maintain a healthy stream, an instream flow water right is required in many states, including Wyoming. I completed studies in several dozen streams during my time working for the Game and Fish and these led to many water rights that will ensure sufficient stream flow will be retained in these streams into the future.
Since September of 2022, I have been the Yampa River Fund Manager in Steamboat Springs. This is a position designed oversee the day-to-day management of an endowment fund that provides grants to projects that benefit the Yampa River watershed. Most people who live in the West are aware that there is a crisis happening on the Colorado River where water is running perilously short to meet the needs of the seven states and millions who depend on it. The Yampa River is a tributary of the Colorado River and some of the same issues are affecting this river, including competing uses for limited water resources and development of the watershed that affects the water quality. The Yampa River Fund is one way that the community is working toward long-term solutions to these problems. This endowment fund was created 3 years ago and due to the generous contributions of many supporters of a healthy and sustainable Yampa River, it has been fully funded with over $5 million and we are about to initiate our 4th cycle of grant awards to projects that will improve the watershed. The fund focuses on funding three types of projects, leasing water to be released from upstream storage in reservoirs to increase stream flow during critical low flow periods, stream restoration projects that improve water quality conditions, and infrastructure improvements that benefit multiple stakeholders and improve the river, such as adding fish passage capabilities to irrigation diversions. The fund is designed to provide a sustainable source of grant funding to add new projects each year that contribute to the improvement of river health from the upper reaches down to the lower portions where Dinosaur National Monument begins. This is truly a broad community resource with substantial support from cities, businesses, environmental groups, recreational groups, and private citizens throughout the watershed. It’s very exciting to be a part of something with such broad support and far-reaching impacts. I look forward to facilitating many new and meaningful projects throughout the watershed as I settle into this new role.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Steamboat Springs is a truly spectacular place to live and work – it’s a paradise for anyone in love with the outdoors. Any visit to town absolutely must include a visit to the Yampa River that runs right through town. Winter or summer, the river is a critical component of what makes this city so special. In the summer, we would absolutely have to get out on the river in a Hala stand up paddleboard or take a raft trip to really appreciate how wonderful it is. If the timing is right, we would take part in the Yampa River Festival put on by the Friends of the Yampa. Of course, an afternoon of fishing would also be on the agenda.
Everyone knows about the world class skiing in Steamboat, and that is always worth a visit, but the locals have a saying, “I came here for the winter and stayed for the summer.” I love showing my friends and family all of the wonderful outdoor places we have to explore here in the Yampa Valley. Pearl lake is a top spot for us to take our kayaks and SUPs out to explore on a sunny afternoon. The Zirkel Wilderness is filled with amazing views and challenging hiking trails to reach them. South of town, the Flat Tops are equally impressive and a trip to the Devils Causeway is always adrenaline inducing.
When it’s time to cool down after a day of adventure, there are several amazing breweries and wonderful dining options. Many of these local businesses support the Yampa River Fund and I always make an effort to return the favor by eating and drinking at those places that embrace the importance of the river to this community and who directly contribute to lending their support to this great cause.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’d like to acknowledge the commitment and dedication that my wife, Margee, has provided at every step of my career. Early on, as a recently graduated biologist, I had visions of working in faraway and exotic lands to explore my curiosities of the natural world. Margee was always willing to indulge my wanderlust and frequently packed up our young family to move across the country to begin a new job and explore a new ecosystem. I am forever grateful for her unfailing support and encouragement that has led to so many wonderful experiences.