Colorado’s bountiful snowpack is beginning to melt, and streams and rivers are on the rise. If current predictions for the runoff stay on track, this could be the longest stretch of boatable flows on Colorado’s rivers in over a decade, including a rare opportunity to float the spectacular 240-mile-long Dolores River.
“We haven’t seen this kind of season since 2011,” said Erin Walter, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service based in Grand Junction. “All the basins are doing well.”
As of Thursday, the Yampa Basin’s snowpack is 141% of average, the Gunnison 171%, the Animas, San Miguel, San Juan and Dolores are collectively at 188%. The Dolores Basin has the highest snowpack in the state, 254% of normal. The lowest snowpack numbers are the South Platte Basin at 96% and the Arkansas Basin at 78%.
“This is definitely one for the record books,” said Kestrel Kunz of the American Whitewater Association. “As a boater I’m excited. This healthy snowpack is something that everyone can be excited about, regardless of whether you’re a river runner, rancher or restaurant owner.”
But how quickly all that high-elevation snow flows into the rivers is the big question.
“A lot depends on the weather over the next month,” said Graham Sexstone, research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. “Many of the USGS stream monitors are showing high flows already and the snowpack above 11,000 feet hasn’t even started to melt. The real runoff hasn’t begun.”
Walters said there are “so many things” that can affect the runoff, including rain, dust, wind, warm or cold temperatures and soil moisture content.
Dust carried by high winds in April tinted much of Colorado’s snowpack with a distinctive red color. “When it collects on snow, dust, being darker, absorbs the solar radiation rather than reflecting it and increases the rate of snow melt,” Walter said. “We’ve also had several years of drought and the soil can suck up a lot of that moisture as well.
“If all the players play nicely we’ll have a gradual warmup and a nice long season of high water in our rivers. This is an unusual year, and we’ll just have to see how it plays out.”
Unusually warm temperatures could send the snowpack rushing downriver all at once, creating dangerous conditions and shortening the boating season. With higher water comes danger, especially for beginner boaters. Rivers are faster and colder, the difficulty of rapids increases and there is more debris — like fallen trees — in the water and low bridges to watch out for.
“Since the pandemic, more people have gotten into river recreation, so a large part of the population hasn’t seen these kinds of flows,” Kunz said. “We have to make sure people are accessing the flows and making good decisions about river safety.”
One of the epicenters of this season’s higher flows is Almont, in the Gunnison River Basin where the East, Taylor and Gunnison rivers come together and the peak flow of the combined rivers may reach a 100-year high.
“High water is a good problem to have,” said Dirk Schumacher, outfitting manager for 3 Rivers rafting in Almont. “The projections we’re looking at right now, the river’s going to be high. High but not unrunnable. At normal flows these are very straightforward Class 3 rivers. At higher water … everything just happens a lot faster.”
Schumacher was referring to a river flow rating system in which flows are rated from Class 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest intensity.
Despite the lower snowpack numbers in the Arkansas River Basin, Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area park manager Tom Waters is optimistic. “We’re looking at a really good year,” he said. ‘It’s going to be a promising season for rafting and the fishery. I think we’ll see high water, but we don’t anticipate really high water or really extended high water. People are already fishing and floating here.”
“But the big story,” said Andy Neinas of Echo Canyon Outfitters in Cañon City, “is longevity. We’re going to have enjoyable flows all season long.
“It’s going to be a wonderful year for our industry as a whole. The Arkansas and upper Colorado are the big dogs on the block, but the Dolores is where my heart is. The Dolores is a gem among gems. But it’s a river that never runs. There hasn’t been a meaningful boating season on the Dolores in 10 years or longer,” he said. “This year, Americans are going to get to see a wonderful resource that has not been available to them.”
Freelance journalist Dean Krakel reported this story for Fresh Water News and a version of it was published on May 3, 2023. Sign up for the weekly Fresh Water News newsletter at watereducationcolorado.org/fresh-water-news