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Boaters float the Browns Canyon section of the Arkansas River, Tuesday, May 19, 2020, near Salida. Colorado Parks and Wildlife says the number of rescues on the Arkansas this year is high. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s river communities endured a $36 million decline in commercial rafter spending in 2020, all flushed downriver in the pandemic.

Colorado’s rafting industry hosted 112,000 fewer commercial rafters last summer as pandemic restrictions and closures throttled one of the state’s most valuable tourism industries. That’s the steepest decline since the summer of 2002, when the snowpack was meager and wildfires raged across the state.  

“We have had years with droughts and forest fires and recessions and now, guess what, here’s pandemic to make us more resilient as small business owners,” said Jim Ingram, whose Aspen Whitewater Rafting saw rafting customers evaporate last summer. 

The Colorado River Outfitters Association on Tuesday released its 2020 rafting report — a couple months late due to pandemic-related slowdowns — 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 was $148.7 million, down from $184.9 million in 2019. That economic decline was the worst since the recession-plagued summer of 2008, when rivers were running, but visitors weren’t spending.

The impacts of last summer’s declines in rafting traffic were not evenly distributed. Some rivers saw commercial rafting trips virtually disappear. The San Juan River near Pagosa Springs, which typically runs only in the late spring and early summer, saw zero commercial rafters last year. The Roaring Fork River saw 1,383 commercial rafting trips last summer, down from nearly 14,000 in 2019. The economic activity from Roaring Fork rafters fell to $478,000 last summer, down from $4.9 million in 2019.

Ingram’s Aspen Whitewater stayed afloat, though. He sold a lot of paddle board trips. None of his staff and no guests fell ill with COVID-19. He spent a bit more with workers regularly washing life jackets, helmets and shuttle buses. His biggest struggle was when restrictions eased and guests lined up and workers were hard to find. 

“I had people on unemployment who didn’t want to come back to work even though I had work,” he said. 

The workhorse of Colorado rafting and the most trafficked stretch of river in the country — the Arkansas River between Buena Vista and Cañon City — saw 182,005 commercial rafters in 2020, a modest 4% decline from the previous season. The economic impact of Arkansas River rafters was $62.9 million in 2020, down from $66.1 million in 2019.

Kevin Meadows hosted more rafters in 2020 than 2019 at his River Runners rafting company on the banks of the Arkansas River. While his gross receipts were up in 2020, he had lots of increased costs, with extra labor for cleaning every paddle, personal flotation device, helmet, van, bus and raft after each trip. He had to run more rafts, too, because COVID limited each craft’s capacity. Similarly shuttle vans proved problematic because of social distance requirements so he used larger school buses,  which require drivers who earn more. 

“Staffing was the biggest issue,” said Meadows, noting that whichever company had available guides got the rafting business. “We luckily had a decent number of guides ready to work. I think industry numbers here would have been higher if there were guides in the valley. Unemployment was too good for some guides to come back to work.”

Meadows said he is booking early reservations at a record pace. He’s hired 45 guides — 15 more than normal — and bought 10 additional boats. Many outfitters are seeing strong interest for the coming season. 

Boaters, from left, John Swan, Kelli Gunderson-Swan, and Kayla Anderson float the Browns Canyon section of the Arkansas River, on May 19, 2020, near Salida. (Hugh Carey / Special to The Colorado Sun)

“People are having pretty robust early reservations,” said David Costlow, executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. 

The flurry of storms in March has eased concerns about a low-flow season as well. Rafting companies don’t get excited when snowpacks swell too far above average. Big snowpacks can create surging rivers that might keep their bread-and-butter vacation paddlers away. Unseasonably warm temperatures in April and May can eat away at mountain snowpacks and leave rafters with reduced flows in the critical months of July and August.

This week’s snowstorms in the high country could bolster snowpacks that are hovering around 80% of median across the state. 

“We are looking at a normal water season and that takes the pressure off,” Costlow said. “If tourism is strong this summer, and indications show it will be, I think we will see a very good season.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...