Rafters, anglers worry as Colorado’s famed white water becomes low water

KREMMLING, Colo. – In the state known as the “mother of rivers,” the third-warmest and driest period in more than a century is wreaking havoc on waterways that provide the economic lifeline for rural communities and high-alpine habitat for Colorado’s signature fish, the greenback cutthroat trout.

The extremes of temperature and precipitation – too much of one, too little of the other – have grounded rafting companies in places that usually offer white-knuckle rides. With water barely lapping over jagged rocks, some outfitters have moved operations to rivers fed by reservoirs higher up in the parched Rockies.

“Boats can get piled up and people can get hurt if they flip, and guides were having to use their backs to pull the rafts off of rocks,” said Alan Blado, owner of Liquid Descent Rafting, which is based about 40 miles west of downtown Denver. “We didn’t want them to get injured.”

Blado hung on there until his usual run, Clear Creek, was just too low. He relocated his school buses and bright blue rafts to the small Rocky Mountain town of Kremmling and now is trying to salvage the late season by persuading clients to drive the extra 72 miles to float a wide blue-green stretch of the Upper Colorado.

“With Clear Creek being cut short, everybody pretty much takes a pay cut,” Blado said.

This state boasts more headwaters than almost any in the country. Heart-stopping rapids, smooth tributaries and deep holes on the Colorado, Arkansas and the Animas rivers, among others, draw outdoors enthusiasts from around the world.

Last year, thanks to the winter’s heavy snows, outfitters served a record number of visitors. Conditions this year are far different – and far more in line with the pattern of recent decades. Since the late 1990s, three intense droughts have buffeted the state’s $193-million rafting industry.

Summer 2018 followed a rough winter in which some areas received 30 percent of what once was typical snowpack. A warm spring thawed drifts early, causing rivers to peak in May, weeks before the busy summer season. Severe to exceptional drought now covers two-thirds of Colorado, and some of the worst wildfires in state history have broken out.

“Not just in Colorado, but U.S. wide and globally, we’re seeing this disturbing warming trend that is amplifying over the last few decades going back to late 1960s,” said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It brings a lot more evaporation and makes semiarid areas like Colorado prone to quick-hitting droughts.”

Beyond diminished livelihoods, for fishing guides as well as outfitters, the restoration work on world-class fisheries is being threatened. With water levels at 25 percent of the historical average on some waterways, wildlife managers instituted voluntary closures to fishing from 2 p.m. to midnight on several sections. Near Kremmling, stream temperatures approached the 70s in June.

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“When water temperatures are above 65 degrees and fish are stressed . . . they don’t have the ability to recover if they are caught and released,” said Jon Ewert, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We’re trying to put the word out to please don’t fish in the afternoon – we have dozens of signs up along rivers.”

The southwest part of the state has been particularly hard hit. The 416 fire, as it is called, scorched 54,000 acres and forced an unusual 10-day closure of the San Juan National Forest and other popular attractions around Durango in mid-June. Outfitters say widespread news coverage of the blaze proved as damaging to their business on the nearby Animas River, a boaters’ favorite, as its record-low water levels.

Those who are continuing to work the lower Animas risk damaging their rafts.

“There is certainly more wear and tear on the boats. You are hitting more rocks and sliding over more gravel bars,” said Alex Mickel, president at AAM’s Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Trail Tours in Durango. Simple math makes each trip more costly, he added. “We have to take less people per boat since the water is moving lower so they are lighter and more maneuverable.”

Some operators, Mickel included, are trying to focus on the positive. Lower rivers, they say, offer a gentler, friendlier “float” adventure for families that increasingly make up the bulk of their business. And rivers where flows have been maintained are benefiting from other waterways’ misfortune.

A unique agreement among state and county agencies, rafting outfitters and the nonprofit organization Trout Unlimited kept water in the Arkansas River – the state’s most popular for paddlers last year. The pact provides for the early movement of water stored in high-alpine reservoirs to collection points on the plains if the river runs too low for boating.

“Outfitters here, believe it or not, are having a great season,” said Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association. “The market pushed rafters to our river.”

Yet even with that 12-year-old pact, officials struggled to keep levels up. Their extra allotment – more than 4.2 billion gallons of water – was all released by early August.

“It was a matter of trying to stretch the water as long as we could for white-water boating,” said Rob White, park manager for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, “while also knowing we needed to keep some water in the river as long as possible for the benefit of the fishery.”

And bigger crowds on the Arkansas have posed different challenges. As more boats plied the waterway this summer, more people got upended. Rangers straddling the current had plucked 384 paddlers through early August, mostly from waters in the Royal Gorge, up from 256 during the same period in 2017, according to statistics compiled by the state Department of Natural Resources.

With its move to the Upper Colorado weeks ago, Liquid Descent Rafting is losing money. Given the distance he must bus clients to the boat launch sites, Blado can only do three trips a day here – compared with the 12 he might launch daily on Clear Creek.

He’s also refunding money to customers who were counting on a ride down churning white water instead of the calmer Colorado. Some tourists, however, have chosen to float the latter – along the way, jumping off cliffs lining its banks, soaking in adjacent hot springs and possibly spotting a bald eagle or bighorn sheep.

More than 70 visitors from across much of the country donned life jackets in late July.

“We were going to go on Clear Creek – we were looking forward to class three or four rapids,” said Lori Hahn of Goshen, Indiana, who was on vacation with her husband and two teenagers. “But we’re okay with doing the easy and chill class-two river here. Maybe we’ll see some wildlife.”

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