Every morning before he leaves for work, my husband goes online to check how much water is flowing between the banks of the Animas River, which winds through our home base of Durango, Colorado. And every morning, he sighs and climbs into his Subaru without throwing a kayak on the roof. Another dry day.
Jesse has no fewer than five kayaks sitting in our shed, but the rivers are so low this year he’s taken up mountain biking after work instead. He was supposed to work as a safety boater on the Upper Animas this summer, but the season is expected to be so brief he’s looking for another job.
Altogether, whitewater contributes more than $14 million to Durango’s economy. So when a low snowpack leads to dismal water levels, as it’s doing this year (snowpack in the Animas basin is 54 percent of normal, compared to 80 percent at this time last year), it hits more than just a handful of dudes who want to huck waterfalls: Commercial rafting companies and whitewater outfitters are bracing for a short season and low water.
Compared to Californians, river runners in Colorado are lucky. In California – where snowpack is just 6 percent of normal, the lowest it’s been in a century or more – river outfitters are closing their doors, whitewater festivals are drying up, and unused kayaks are collecting dust and spiderwebs in garages across the state. Canoe & Kayak reports that three companies on the Kern River have decided not to run rafting trips at all: “The drought has reduced projected Kern River flows to a level that is inadequate to run the top-quality rafting trips our guests expect,” says Kern River Outfitters’ website. Three other companies will push valiantly on, peddling calm-water SUPing, tubing and “mellow” raft trips, but tourists seeking the classic splash-in-your-face rush of whitewater rafting will have to look elsewhere.
The question is, where? Dave Steindorf, California stewardship director for the non-profit American Whitewater, says that rivers like the Feather, the Pitt, the Mokelumne, and the South Fork of the American – which depend on groundwater rather than snowmelt – will all run this year. But that’s it. Virtually every other California river will be dry. Still, he adds, dealing with drought is nothing new for whitewater paddlers in the West: “We’ve been in a virtual state of drought for the last 50 to 100 years,” he says. “When the vast majority of water in our rivers is diverted out for hydropower, agriculture and other uses, it’s like we’re always operating in a drought.”
That may be true. But things are about to get even worse. According to NASA, the American West is in the very early stages of a mega-drought that could last for more than a century. That means that engineers and policy makers who’ve spent the previous century doling out water rights to farms and cities have likely overestimated the amount of water that’s available. Today, nearly every river in the West is over allocated. Demand exceeds supply. “If everyone takes what they’re legally entitled to,” says Doug Kenney, a University of Colorado law professor, “the system collapses.”
For paddlers, drier winters and climate change are only part of the problem. Dust kicked up from development, grazing and drought on the Colorado Plateau gets carried by spring storms onto snowy peaks in the Rockies, causing the powder to not only look filthy but also absorb more light and melt faster. A few decades ago, snow acted like a reservoir: it would melt slowly, releasing water downstream over the course of a whole summer. Over the last ten years, though, dust-on-snow events have become more frequent, leading to a rush of snow melt in the spring and dry rivers (and unhappy paddlers) in the summer.
That’s what’s predicted to happen in the Animas, my backyard river, this year. The Dolores, another nearby river with a multi-day wilderness section that’s supposed to rival the Grand Canyon, is also out of the question: It’s been over-allocated and un-boatable for years. But Jesse and I will still be able to drive across the Continental Divide to the Arkansas or Poudre rivers, on Colorado’s eastern slope, to go kayaking. And therein lies one of the biggest contradictions for whitewater boaters in the West: Thanks to a fancy system called a transmountain diversion, in which water from one river basin is pumped over some mountains to feed another, hungrier system, there’s almost always some paddling to be found. Unfortunately, it’s often at the expense of other boaters, and other rivers, somewhere else.
If there’s any silver lining to this year’s terrible snowpack and ongoing drought, it’s that the paddling community is finally starting to wake up to the need to take action. “Typically, paddlers that are not members of American Whitewater only start to care once they see their rivers dry up,” says Nathan Fey, the group’s Colorado River stewardship program director. Like other adventure sports enthusiasts, kayakers aren’t super likely to get involved in wonky policy stuff like the statewide water plan Colorado’s currently ironing out, even though the plan could have a huge impact on how river water is allocated in the future. But now that people are watching their backyard whitewater turn to rocky stream beds, kayakers may finally joint the chorus of voices calling for better management of the West’s most precious resource.
Photo of Poudre River (top) by City of Fort Collins, Andrew Sorensen (bottom)