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With low snowmelt expectations, southern Colorado rafting outfitters eyeing 'safety blanket'

April 16, 2018 Updated: April 16, 2018 at 11:54 am
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Rafters navigate high water and big rapids in Bighorn Sheep Canyon on the Arkansas River Wednesday, June 18, 2014. Thirteen people have drowned so far this year in Colorado, four of whom were related to rafting accidents. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

In the months before summer, Mike Kissack's obsession with snowpack takes him to the government website that tracks it.

"It's part of my morning routine," says the owner of American Adventure Expeditions, one of several Buena Vista outfitters in Colorado's whitewater rafting epicenter.

Kissack hasn't been thrilled about what he's seen lately.

With the damage done across ski country, the aftermath of a dry winter could be felt in the nation's premier rafting site, the Arkansas River basin.

Eyes have been fixed on the mountains, where snow melts to feed and swell the river running through Chaffee County and beyond to epic canyons. Onlookers have been discouraged. U.S. Department of Agriculture data show the basin's snowpack is at its lowest in nearly 40 years.

With typical runoff a month away, Kissack and his industry counterparts are keeping their fingers crossed for late storms, though they've accepted that the source of their livelihood won't be its famous, rollicking self.

But they refuse to let that narrative dominate heading into the season.

"We're not as concerned as a lot of the media (are) right now," says Brandon Slate, president of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association.

In other years, he points out, the association could be hearing questions about heavy snowpack turning the water dangerous or deadly. While thrill-seekers might struggle this summer in their search for Class V rapids, outfitters take comfort in the likelihood of those river sections staying open for safe business.

Still, low flows are the other extreme for shutting down rafting. Moderate levels don't get the headlines, Slate says, but they are the industry wish. And if Mother Nature won't provide them on the Arkansas River this season, outfitters hope water managers will.

This could be a "banner year" for the Upper Arkansas Voluntary Flow Management Program, says Joe Greiner, owner of Wilderness Aware Rafting. It could be "very critical," says Bob Hamel, executive director of the outfitters association. This week he'll make a case to the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board, which oversees the 27-year-old program that outfitters see as a safety blanket in low snow years.

"Voluntary" is the key aspect to the Upper Arkansas Voluntary Flow Management Program. To bolster flows during rafting's peak season, the conservancy district can ask the Bureau of Reclamation to release up to 10,000 acre-feet of water benefiting Front Range communities, including Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

But the program is less giving in dry years. While outfitters await a May 1 forecast from federal regulators, they might want to temper expectations.

"I'd think releases will still be timed as much as possible to benefit the flow program, but there just may not be that much water coming down," says Chris Woodka, spokesman for the conservancy district. "We've had years where it was at this point, then it starts raining or snowing and we get more water. But everything so far is pointing to a dry year."

Outfitters are optimistic about storage in the two Lake County reservoirs providing for the program, which also manipulates flows ideal to trout habitats. At last check by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Twin Lakes capacity was 105 percent of average, and Turquoise was at 86 percent. But with agriculture set to take center stage in an especially complex season of supply and demand, what kind of case can rafting make?

"Recreation has become way more prevalent in conversations in water communities," says Hamel, who's been at the tables for 40 years. "Everybody acknowledges that recreation and fisheries are really important parts economically."

For now, outfitters are preparing to control what they can. With low flows, they might try to raise the adventure by lightening loads in boats. With calmer waters, some might promote trying a new sport, such as kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding.

Heading into his 18th summer in Buena Vista, Kissack isn't panicking.

"Regardless of the snowpack, the mountains are still there, the canyons are still there, and that's a big part of the experience for everybody," he says. "I've learned to know we're gonna be OK, regardless."

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Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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