Rafting the unnatural way in the High Country
Consider the Arkansas River between Leadville and Salida, the heart of Colorado’s multi-million dollar whitewater industry. Left to natural ways, the river would rage briefly during spring runoff, then retreat to a trickle in mid- to late summer.
But the Arkansas River hasn’t flowed naturally for more than a century. Dams impound the springtime runoff, then augment the flows in mid- to late summer. Water from the Fryingpan, the Roaring Fork and the Eagle rivers, all on the Western Slope, is diverted through the summer to the Arkansas for cities, corn and cantaloupe.
Tamed in spring and emboldened in summer, the Arkansas flows more steadily at about 750 cubic feet per second, or cfs, well into August most years, offering the rollicking whitewater equivalent of black-diamond ski trails. As such, the Arkansas River is an example of how recreational users and businesses have prospered from the manipulation of Colorado’s water. There’s little that’s natural.
But commercial rafting has become such big business that companies, in collaboration with state government, have gone even further. Using a pool of money, they have bought up to 5,000 acre-feet of water to help ensure optimal flows through mid-August, when both water supplies and customers conveniently dwindle.
This year, of course, everything is different in Colorado. Money isn’t enough to get water. Several companies from the I-70 corridor didn’t even bother taking customers to the Arkansas, where rafters had to make do with 200 to 250 cfs, a third of optimum.
On the Upper Colorado, the second-busiest river segment in Colorado, the story is different but also similar. Being on the Western Slope, it is a victim, not a beneficiary, of transmountain diversions. To accommodate those diversions, eight major dams have been built, all of them intended to retain the surge of spring runoff.
To compensate for the “sins” of these diversions – a phrase used from a Western Slope point of view – three dams have been built to aid Western Slope users. All three – Green Mountain, Williams Fork and, to a lesser extent, Wolford – are clustered in the Kremmling area.
These releases are intended primarily to ensure water for agriculture, but rafters and kayakers have piggy-backed on. The result is a river much larger by late summer than it normally would be. As of late July this year, two-thirds of the water flowing into Glenwood Canyon was coming from Green Mountain Reservoir.
Most rafters know the river only in this artificial flow regime.
“I started in the whitewater business in 1974, and by then all these dams were in place,” says Greg Kelcher, owner of Timberline Tours, a Vail-based whitewater rafting business.
Depending upon your hobby, it’s a good news, bad news change.
Says Bill McEwen, water commissioner for the Eagle Valley, “It creates longer rafting seasons and shorter fishing seasons.”