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Waiting for meltdown

Cliff Thompson

EAGLE COUNTY – Rafting operators in Eagle County are looking towards a runoff season that they’re calling the best in several years.That runoff will be primed by melting snow that supported skiers all season. This spring, the snowpack has hit 90 percent or more of average in Eagle County and is above average across much of the central and southwestern parts of the state.”When things get warm, it will happen pretty quickly,” said Greg Kelchner of Timberline Tours. “It’s looking to be a pretty good year. All the arrows are pointing up.”Across the state, rivers typically peak during the first or second week of June, and they appear to be on track for that this year. Kelchner, who has been rafting here for 35 years, uses the snow left on Vail Mountain’s Riva Ridge as his gauge for determining high water on Gore Creek and the Eagle River.”When Riva is a little more brown than white, that’s the peak of runoff,” he said. “It’s uncannily accurate.”At Lakota Guides, Darryl Bangert said the recent cool weather will slow down the snowmelt, pushing the peak flows farther into June “This is probably more the norm,” he said. “It will be a typical good year.”At Alpine Kayak in Avon, manager Stephen Petrella is hoping to have runoff well into the summer. “We want a gradual, slow runoff,” he said. “We want it to extend into July.”One of the more popular sections of the Eagle River is Dowd Chute, just downstream of where Interstate 70 crosses over the river in Dowd Junction between Eagle-Vail and Minturn, he said.Surprisingly it’s not the flow of the river that seems to generate business, Kelchner said.”It’s important to have sunny, hot days,” he said, adding that the peak of rafting business, not surprisingly, hits during the busy July 4 holiday.Another factor that seems to encourage people to take a raft trip is the local buzz. “When all the locals say we’re going to have a good year, that transfers over to the tourists,” he said. On rivers like the Colorado, some of the flow is determined by how much water is released from Summit County’s Green Mountain Reservoir. That reservoir now holds 70,000 acre-feet and is about half full. About 225,000 acre-feet of water is expected to reach the reservoir, said Mike Gillespie of the Natural Resource Conservation Service.Rafting can be a pretty big business in Eagle County. Statistics compiled by the Colorado River Outfitters association show nearly 14,000 people book trips on the Eagle River with commercial rafting outfits, and another 40,000 rafted the upper Colorado River. The River Guides’ Association estimates that’s worth better than $10 million before those dollars spin out of the local economy. While not all the people rafting the rivers stay in Eagle County and make trips with Eagle County business, rafting season represents a chunk of change.Statewide numbers for people using commercial rafting companies rebounded after a drought-shriveled 2002, when the number of people dipped nearly 40 percent to 319,562. In 2003 and 2004, that number rebounded to nearly 450,000.The melt will also help to fuel whitewater competitors in the Teva Mountain Games, held June 1-5 in Vail and other parts of the valley. Vail, Colorado


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