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Rafters and surfers enjoy riding a wave on the Gunnison River near Gunnison on May 17,2020. The Gunnison is flowing at about 80% of its normal volume for this time of year. Overall, Colorado's snowpack is melting faster than usual. Along with lower river flows the presence of COVID-19 is creating challenges for commercial river running companies as well as private boaters. (Dean Krakel, Special to Fresh Water News)

By Dean Krakel, Fresh Water News

With warming temperatures in Colorado’s mountains and spring runoff in full swing, the whitewater boating season should be off to a roaring start.


The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

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But Colorado’s stringent COVID-19 travel and recreation restrictions are forcing commercial rafting companies to create social distance on unruly rivers and face the potential for smaller crowds.

“The snowpack’s in good shape,” John Kreski, rafting coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’ Arkansas River Headwaters Area, said earlier this month. “But the phones aren’t ringing. This is very frustrating.”

But by Wednesday afternoon, the trend was “changing rapidly,” said Kevin Meadows, owner of River Runners Browns Canyon in Buena Vista. Though Chaffee County has not yet heard whether its request for a variance from Gov. Jared Polis’ “Safer at Home” order has been granted and outfitters can begin floating down the Arkansas before the order lifts on June 1, rafters have begun booking trips.

“Our calls are increasing exponentially on a daily basis,” Meadows said. “Two weeks ago we had no bookings. But now we are booking 20% of our historical volume. So we have a ways to go to get where we want to be. But these are optimistic signs.”

MORE: Counties fear being left behind as Colorado begins granting variances to its coronavirus safer-at-home order

Colorado’s highest flows, as of mid-May, are in the northern part of the state, with the Poudre and North Platte at 100% to 120% of normal, according to Aldis Strautins, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

Patrick Robinson and Bekah Munnikhuysen float their yellow raft in the Browns Canyon section of the Arkansas River near Salida. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The upper Colorado, Gunnison, Green and lower Colorado rivers are all flowing at between 70% to 80% of normal, while the Arkansas River, from Buena Vista to the Royal Gorge, is flowing at 80% of normal.

But because of an unusually warm and dry April, flows are trending downward in the central and southern mountains.

The South Platte River and Clear Creek are running at 64% to 70% of normal, while the Rio Grande and San Juan River are just 45% of normal.

Northern Colorado rivers, such as the Poudre, will have enough snowmelt to extend flows for boating into late summer. Elsewhere in the state, the best floating will occur from May into early July. “Get down into that 70 to 75% and you’re looking at a reduced season,” Strautins said. “There’s just not enough snow to extend it.”

Hoping to maximize the early season flows, outfitters are anxiously waiting to see how many visitors will show, according to Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, a trade group.

Boaters float the Browns Canyon section of the Arkansas River, Tuesday, May 19, 2020, near Salida. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Who’s going to travel? Who’s got money? Will we even be traveling or flying to destinations?” he asked.

Still, Hamel is hopeful that the state’s waterways can be opened for commercial use by early June, bringing some much-needed economic activity to the state.

Colorado’s rafting industry is the No. 2 contributor to the state’s recreation economy, behind skiing. Centered on the Colorado, Rio Grande, Arkansas and North and South Platte rivers, it contributed nearly $188 million to the state’s economy, according to a report of the Colorado Outfitters Association. Visitors spent an average of $135 on a river adventure, including food, lodging, gas and souvenirs.

These numbers don’t include hundreds of homegrown rafters and kayakers who recreate on Colorado’s rivers or the large numbers of boaters from out of state that bring their own gear to the hallmark waterways.

How COVID-19 will impact the industry this summer isn’t clear yet, though major changes are underway.

“Every river floating company will have to adapt their own safety procedures to the kind of trips that they offer,” Hamal said. “A half-day trip down the Taylor River can’t be handled the same as a multi-day trip down the Gunnison Gorge. Some rafts are bigger. Some are smaller. The rafting industry can’t do a one-size-fits-all.”

A river surfer puts in on the Gunnison River near Gunnison, taking advantage of what’s shaping up to be a short season in some areas as Colorado’s snowpack is melting faster than usual. (Dean Krakel, Special to Fresh Water News)

One set of COVID-19 rafting guidelines developed by Mark Schumacher, owner of Three Rivers Resort in Almont, includes daily screening of employees, no-touch guest check-in, and hand sanitizer in all office and retail areas.

In addition, directional signs will guide visitors to wherever they need to go, with group size monitored by employees. The number of people on a raft will be reduced to maintain proper social distancing, with spaced seating and open windows on vans and shuttles, disinfection of equipment after each use, and instructions to clients to bring their own water bottles and food.

Andy Neinas, a river running veteran with Echo Canyon Outfitters’ in Cañon City, said the rafting industry is well-equipped to handle the COVID-19 restrictions.

“All of us are juggling things to make it all work,” he said. “We’re going to be doing it differently, but nobody does it better than Colorado.”

Freelance photographer and writer Dean Krakel reported this story for Fresh Water News, where it was published on May 20, 2020.  Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado.