DENVER – Canoe? Check. Paddle? Check. Life preserver? Check. Epic whitewater conditions? Maybe next year.
After a winter of historically low snowpack combined with an earlier-than-normal runoff, Colorado river guides and tourists are adjusting their spring and summer plans for what is turning out to be an early paddling season.
“We really live on snowpack. That’s what it comes down to,” said Richard Ferguson, a trip coordinator for The Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club, which serves northern Colorado.
The whitewater canoeist said low river flows already have forced him to cancel one trip scheduled in July on the Yampa River in northwest Colorado. Another group outing that had been planned for Memorial Day had to be moved.
“A light snowpack means that the peak is very early,” Ferguson said. “What happens is the season just disappears very quickly. What you have essentially is no water to paddle in.”
Although he still plans to hit the rapids just about every other week for the time being, Ferguson predicts there won’t be any paddling on northern Colorado’s Poudre River by mid-summer.
“At some point you’re scraping bottom and kind of beating up your boat,” he said. “At some point it gets to where it’s really not worth it anymore.”
That point is not yet clear.
According to The Natural Resources Conservation Service, the statewide snowpack was 7 percent of average as of Thursday, with more than half of all snow survey locations in Colorado reporting no snow.
Mage Skordahl, the NRCS’s assistant snow survey supervisor, said Colorado’s snowpack peaked around March 12, a month ahead of average, and current conditions in the state match those recorded during the record-setting drought of 2002, one of the toughest years for river guides in the state.
It’s a scenario that is playing out across a vast swath of the West this year, especially in the Colorado River Basin, which drains parts of seven states and is largely parched by severe drought this year, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.
Alex Mickel, president of Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Trail Tours in Arizona, said his company tries to take advantage of the early runoff to run trips on the Verde and Salt rivers, but the amount of snowfall dictates how long the rafting season will run.
With more snowfall in eastern Arizona’s White Mountains this past winter, the trips lasted longer than the previous year but still had to be cut short by about a week because of the low water levels.
“Anytime we make it into May, we consider it a success,” Mickel said. “We’re glad we got enough snow to do that. We’d certainly like to see more.”
In New Mexico, drought continues its grip across the state to some degree, and water levels in reservoirs are low. Meanwhile, the Rio Grande, Chama and other rivers known for rafting aren’t as high as in years past.
But with persisting dry conditions, rafting companies say they have learned to adapt to lower river levels over the last couple of years. And despite New Mexico’s recent statewide drought declaration, some areas like Taos had decent snowfall over the winter.