Dangerous conditions on Colorado riverways cause recreation restrictions, high need for rescues

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Paddleboarders, rafters and kayakers on the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon on Friday, July 8, 2022.

If you’re new to the world of water recreation and you’re considering heading to the river this weekend, officials are asking you to rethink that decision.

Colorado’s waterways are extremely cold, fast and high, due to the combination of snowmelt and high amounts of rainfall over the past few weeks. In Grand Junction, officials have raised a red flag warning for River Park at Las Colonias.  

“The warnings include, of course, life jackets and the wearing of those, but indicating that really only experts should be on the [Colorado River] at this time of the year with that warning level using whitewater devices,” Grand Junction communications director Sara Spaulding said. “So things like inner tubes absolutely are not allowed at this point.”

Spaulding said the height of the Colorado River at River Park is flowing at 14 cubic feet per second — a measurement that reflects the water’s height — and isn’t expected to drop below 11 cubic feet per season until later this month. 

Across the Continental Divide, conditions at Clear Creek in Jefferson County are similar. Last week, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, the Golden Police Department and the Golden Fire Department announced a partial closure of the waterway, allowing only kayaks, whitewater canoes and other multi-chambered floating devices access to the creek. 

“Clear Creek is fed by snow runoff, and this winter, we were fortunate to be far closer to our normal levels of snow accumulation than the last couple of years,” said Golden Fire Department Lt. Marc Staley. “This is already translating to higher water levels in Clear Creek than the last couple of years and it will continue to rise for the next several weeks.”

Public safety officials across the state have been dispatched to several rescues on Colorado waterways since temperatures have increased. In Fort Collins, the Poudre Fire Authority were dispatched to the Poudre River in late May when they got reports that six tubers were all separated from their tubes. Only one person ended up needing rescue, but Poudre Fire Authority public information officer Annie Bierbower warned separation from floatation devices could result in serious health risks. 

“[One call] was for a kayaker who became separated from their kayak, and that individual was actually in the water for, we think, around 40 minutes and suffered some pretty severe hypothermia and I guess got banged up pretty bad just for how long they were in the water,” she said. 

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Animal Control Unit has also been called to rescue pets that have been swept away by strong river flow. 

“Even dogs that are great swimmers, if we're saying the waters are not safe for people, they really aren't safe for pets and definitely not for children,” Jefferson County Sheriff public information officer Karlyn Tilley said. “So we advise that people take precautions and keep their dogs on leashes and just try to keep their dogs away from that running water because they can be taken downstream just as easily as anyone else.”

Officials are warning people to check river conditions before they head out, and if they arrive and see high and fast conditions, not to risk getting swept up.