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Despite drought, rafters see strong season ahead

Low snowpack, pandemic not expected to lessen demand in Southwest Colorado
David Moler, owner of Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours/4 Corners Whitewater, with employees Mollie Moler, center, and Teal Lehto, inspect a raft Tuesday as seasonal business picks up. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Neither low snowpack nor the last chapters of the COVID-19 pandemic will be able to take the wind out of sails of regional rafting companies during the upcoming season, according to the owners of two local rafting companies.

“We’re expecting to have sufficient water to have lots of fun. The real adventurers really love having some really high water, but most of our trips are family-oriented. They’re still lots of fun, but without tons of water,” said Alex Mikel, founder and president of Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours of Durango. “Most of our customers, they don’t particularly want that high, cold water that some thrill-seekers certainly want. The mainstay of the business here in Durango is family trips.”

As of April 28, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SNOTEL map showed Southwest Colorado with 61% of the 30-year average of snow-water equivalent. That snowpack covers the Animas, San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel river basins

Southwest Colorado has the lowest regional snowpack in the state.

The state’s next lowest snowpack is the Gunnison River basin at 66% of average.

While Southwest Colorado has been in a La Niña year, which typically means less snowfall for this corner of the state, Mikel said the snowpack should be enough to meet the needs of its family trips.

“We’ve been really fortunate,” he said. “Although we have not had a real high snowpack, it’s been a nice, cool spring and a lot of the snow we do have is still up there. And we’re expecting to have a good base flow of water well into the summer.”

The Animas River’s flow is expected to be lower than usual through July, possibly with only 45% the volume it normally has during that period, according to Aldis Strautins, hydrologist with the National Weather Service, in an interview late last month.

Dave Moler, owner of Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours and 4 Corners Whitewater in Durango, said the big problem for rafting companies is “a perception problem rather than an actual lack of precipitation.”

“At times, we’ve hit 89% snowpack in our watershed this year,” Moler said.

He added: “Where people get stuck is when they look at the water or the snowpack on a particular day, and it’s 45% and that can sell in a headline. But the reality is, we’re approaching a slightly less-than-average snowpack this year, and we’ve been fortunate that the snow is holding. We’ve had cold evenings in our watershed, and that’s keeping the runoff at bay.”

Mollie Moler, left, and Teal Lehto, with Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours/4 Corners Whitewater, put on a fresh coat of stain Tuesday as they start opening up for business. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In 2020, public health restrictions delayed rafting trips until June, and the abbreviated season hit the bottom line.

Last week, the Colorado River Outfitters Association released its 2020 rafting report showing a 21% decline in commercial rafting days on 29 stretches of Colorado rivers in 2020 versus 2019.

The economic impact of last year’s 430,175 guided rafters in Colorado was $148.7 million, down from $184.9 million in 2019. That economic decline was the worst since the recession-plagued summer of 2008.

Chandler Griffin, interim communications director with San Juan Basin Public Health, said rafting companies and outdoor recreation businesses currently have no restrictions on their outdoor operations, although social distancing and the wearing of face masks is recommended.

When conducting indoor operations, masks are required unless every individual present is vaccinated. Also, while inside, social distancing, providing 6 feet of distance, is required for nonrelated household parties, Griffin said.

Mikel said Mild to Wild has developed a 30-page COVID-19 mitigation plan, and it expects to continue with some self-imposed restrictions to minimize viral transmission during the current season.

One practice adopted for COVID-19 that Mild to Wild will likely continue is socially distancing nonrelated household parties in buses en route to trips.

“This is an evolving process,” Mikel said.

He noted this season many river runners will be vaccinated and the risk of transmission while outside was always low.

“Once we were allowed to begin operations in June, we facilitated river runs for more than 20,000 people between our Durango and Moab operations, and we couldn’t trace one case of transmission to our activities,” Mikel said.

Both Mikel and Moler expect the demand for outdoor recreation witnessed in summer 2020 to continue this year. Both are reporting strong reservations for the season.

“I think if you’re following the health guidelines, I think people are recognizing that outdoor activities are at lower risk to get COVID. Once we were allowed to open, we saw pretty high demand, and I think that will continue,” Moler said.

One benefit of the COVID-19-altered season last year, Moler said, was that it increased the distance people were willing to drive to Durango for a rafting trip.

Customers arriving by car generally come to Durango from about a six-hour or shorter drive, and Moler said last year he saw the length of an acceptable car trip increased to about eight hours.

“We drew people from a bigger radius. People were driving farther,” he said. “I think that really could hold up. I think more and more people are really comfortable hopping into their cars rather than hopping on a plane.”