American Adventures Expeditions rafts float down Browns Canyon before they hit the class III rapids that are found on the Arkansas River, in this photo taken Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in Buena Vista.

An iconic Colorado industry hopes this summer presents a much different wave than the one of 2020.

As COVID-19 continued its spread, whitewater rafting outfits reduced capacity and adjusted operations last season, as detailed by a recent industry report. Those moves combined with other factors to result in the lowest customer base since 2012.

That year, similar to 2020, is remembered for wildfires. Last summer's historic blazes "affected things because of people's perceptions," said David Costlow, executive director of Colorado River Outfitters Association. But the association's latest report more so cites pandemic-related impacts to business.

The year "was among the most trying in the industry's history," the report reads.

Commercial user days — one day by one customer or three days by one customer, for example — amounted to 430,175 across all state rivers last year. That was down 20.7% from 2019 and the fewest since 414,177 were tallied nine seasons ago. Since 2014, the industry has roughly logged between 500,000 and 575,000 commercial user days annually.

Last year, awaiting public health guidance from the state, outfitters remained closed through the critical Memorial Day weekend. Guidance came the first Friday of June, Costlow said. From there, he said, some business owners spent days and weeks scrambling to make changes and finally book trips.

"If they lost the middle of May and then lost the first two weeks of June," Costlow said, "that's a month out of an 11-week season. That's significant."

Then there were the health protocols. Due to capacity restrictions, some guides might've had to drive two shuttle busses where they otherwise would've driven one — "twice the fuel, twice the cost," Costlow said. Some outings might have required more guides than usual, with separate parties having to be divided on rafts.

Costlow said he was "hopeful" for a return to business as usual, or close to it, this summer.

"We'll still be quite cautious, and we hope our customers will be, too," he said. "But we think it won't be as severe as last year."

As for water flows, Costlow said he anticipated close to an average season. At the start of May, Colorado's statewide snowpack hovered at about 75% of average.

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