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Rafting danger rises on Arkansas River as snowmelt runoff increases

June 9, 2017 Updated: June 10, 2017 at 12:19 pm
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Rafters pass through Browns Canyon on the Arkansas River in May 2016. Swollen by runoff from melting snow, parts of the Arkansas River are running too high and fast to be safe for rafting this coming week. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette.

Melting snowpack is sending a torrent of water down the Arkansas River, making areas like the Royal Gorge dangerous for rafting.

Water was flowing at 3,770 cubic feet per second late Friday afternoon at Parkdale, just west of Royal Gorge, according to the United States Geological Survey. Colorado Parks and Wildlife issues a high water advisory and recommends not rafting when flows reach 3,200 cubic feet per second level in the gorge, known for its whitewater rapids.

The high river flow wasn't unexpected and isn't out of the ordinary, said Bill Banks with USGS.

"A great deal of water is moving downstream right now because we've had a pretty abundant snowfall," Banks said. "This is just the normal cycle."

Colorado has seen a relatively slow, steady snowmelt this year, he said.

"That's what we like - a long, controlled runoff," Banks said. "That's the best for the environment, best for stakeholders in the region. It's best all around."

It's been several days since Whitewater Adventure Outfitters has taken rafters out in Royal Gorge. Owner Tony Keenan said he hopes to return to Royal Gorge by next week.

"High water is super fun," he said. "It's not for everyone, but that's what a lot of people come for."

He's come to expect it at this time of year. Last June, the company suspended rafting in Royal Gorge for at least a week.

"Every year, the snow melts, and every year, the water goes up," Keenan said. "It's nothing new to us."

A hazardous weather outlook from the National Weather Service in Pueblo warned that an approaching period of warm, dry weather in southern Colorado could further melt the snowpack.

"Temperatures through Sunday will be well above seasonal average, and will lead to continued accelerated melting of the high mountain snowpack, keeping area streams and rivers flowing high and fast," the weather service reported.

Rafting can be technically easier when the water is higher because there are fewer rocks and other obstacles to navigate - but the danger comes from how swift the water is, said James Whiteside, owner of Royal Gorge Rafting.

While the water flow remains above recommended levels, Whiteside's company has been taking rafters out on a comparable section of the river upstream, he said. Running kayaks alongside the rafts when the water is high provides additional safety.

"Of course, that's our goal - safety is paramount around here," Keenan said, also emphasizing the importance of taking precautions. His company also sends rafters elsewhere when the water is too high in Royal Gorge.

The Arkansas River's water level has made it too dangerous for Fremont Search and Rescue to put boats in the water, according to a Friday morning Facebook post. "Any rescue attempts will need to be made from shore-based resources."

There's been one death this year on the Arkansas River, said Bill Vogrin, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The man was rafting with Royal Gorge Rafting when he and two other people fell into the water near Sunshine Falls at the end of County Road 61. His April 30 death was ruled an accidental drowning by the Fremont County coroner.

There were two deaths each year in 2015 and 2016, seven deaths in 2014 - the highest number since records began about 25 years ago - and no deaths in 2013 or 2012.

For more information from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, visit the website for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.

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Contact Ellie Mulder: 636-0198

Twitter: @lemarie

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