Colorado River Runners Anticipate Big Water

June 01, 2011

The Colorado River begins high in the Colorado Rockies, and flows through majestic canyons in Utah and Arizona, all the way down to the Gulf of California.

As summer temperatures rise and snow melts, boaters downstream are anticipating a big year. In some places they’re predicting the biggest and possibly most challenging rapids on record.

Scientists have measured a 16-foot snow pack in the Rockies, and all that snow is on its way down the mountain. Lars Haarr has been a boatman for 20 years in southern Utah. He’s seen the Colorado River surge before.

“There are times you feel so small and helpless like a cork bobbing on the water and you have these truck-size walls of water smashing upon you from all sides,” Haarr said. “This is finally the year that I’ve been waiting for. It’s going to be huge and it’s going to be scary, but it’s exactly what I want.”

Utah river outfitters have warned their passengers about the impending spring runoff. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center predicts peak flows as high as 120,000 cubic feet per second in Cataract Canyon near Moab, three times higher than last year’s peak flows.

“Boaters have to be prepared. They have to be skilled,” said Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent at Canyonlands National Park in Utah. “Most importantly they need to be prepared for self rescue and self support.”

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In past years, the National Park Service has set up rescue camps near the most dangerous rapids in Cataract. This year, Henderson can’t guarantee they will be there.

“It would be impossible for us to be everywhere, every place, all the time to try to help folks,” he said.

Downstream, national park officials in northern Arizona are less worried. Grand Canyon's chief of emergency operations Ken Phillips said the Colorado is a completely different river in the canyon because the flow is controlled by the Glen Canyon Dam.

“It’s actually low flows that really cause a great deal of concern here at the park,” Phillips said.

River guides at Arizona Raft Adventures in Flagstaff load a truck with paddles, coolers and life vests for their next trip through Grand Canyon.

“At this water level, the rocks are covered up," said Fred Thevenin, the company's co-owner and operations manager. "The waves are smoother, slightly bigger, just more friendly, more inviting to go into the big stuff. It’s fun.”

The increased snowmelt is also good news for cities like Las Vegas and San Diego that rely on the Colorado River for drinking water. Spring runoff will help replenish Lake Powell and Mead. Bureau of Reclamation Hydraulic Engineer Rick Clayton said the reservoirs have come close to shortage levels in recent months.

“The supply of water has improved tremendously,” Clayton said. “But there’s still a significant amount of storage space in the two reservoirs that we would like to see filled with water. We’re not out of the woods.”

Clayton would like to see a few more wet years like this one. But for now he says the snowmelt will keep shortages at bay.