Stories of drought and low water levels have shrouded Colorado this summer. Drought has left forests and rivers dry while contributing to dangerous wildfire conditions. But as whitewater rafting season comes to a close, some outfitters said they still “killed it this year.”
Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions, runs rafting tours on the Arkansas River, the most popular river for rafting in Colorado. Despite some challenges his company faced, he said it found a way to provide for guests.
“This will be the largest revenue year we've ever posted of our history,” Neinas said.
He credits some of their success to the Voluntary Flow Management Program, a plan that shares water from reservoirs into river flows. Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitter Association, agreed with the program’s effectiveness
In Colorado’s case, the Voluntary Flow Management Program moved water to the Arkansas River at opportune times through coordination with Pueblo’s Board of Water Works and Colorado Springs Utilities.
“The Arkansas was actually in better shape than a lot of other rivers in the state of Colorado,” he said. “We could continue to run similar itineraries that we usually do at normal, average snowpack years. And so that really helped the outfitters have a really good season, actually. The numbers are just coming in, but it looks like the industry is going to be up a little bit. That’s a pleasant surprise.”
Last year, Colorado’s whitewater rafting industry hosted a record number of visitors, the Colorado River Outfitters Association (CROA) reported. Visitors also spent more money in the state than they ever had before, dropping a total of $193 million.
CROA’s Executive Director David Costlow said in most areas, the water didn’t come down too early, making for a great season in May and June. It wasn’t until July that some companies started to run dry.
The Arkansas and Cache la Poudre rivers hosted rafters through Labor Day, their entire seasons, Costlow said. The Colorado River is even going beyond its normal season and is still raftable.
But the Las Animas River struggled at the beginning of the summer, as runs on spring runoff water was cut short because of the 416 Fire.
Lower water levels don’t necessarily make rivers unraftable, Costlow said. Rather, outfitters become better geared toward families rather than “extreme” rafters.
“A lot of people, they want to go when it's not, you know, boat-flipping,” he said. “Outfitters have learned to bring families in where maybe in May, June, you’d normally have a lot of high-adventure people … And I think outfitters have learned to advertise for that better.”
Outfitters also credit their success this year to their prior experiences in 2002 and 2012, years where drought and fire conditions were even worse.
Alan Blado, owner of Liquid Descent Rafting, had to end his rafting along Clear Creek earlier than expected because water levels were just too low. Fortunately, he was able to raft in the Colorado River near Kremmling. He said this year’s conditions are much less significant compared to ones in 2002 and 2012.
“I've been rafting in Colorado since 2002 and there's been three years that have been like this,” Blado said. “Out of those three years, this was the best out of the bad.”
But Blado remains optimistic and said he’s thankful for the good year he’s had, where it could have been much worse.
“I've learned to always stay positive,” he said. “Part of me is like, ‘We could have really knocked the ball out of the park.’ But instead of getting upset about that, I'll take a good year when we have subpar conditions.”
Colorado gets years like this every now and then, Blado said, but the problem would be worrisome if it happened consecutively.
“It seems that the headlines were always, you know, ‘Drought conditions killing outfitters,’ and, you know, they were kind of trying to paint is really a negative picture,” he said. “If you look back historically in Colorado, we have these years, where we get less snow than usual, and we don't want to get too, ‘Oh my gosh, the sky is falling.’ This is the new reality.”