Travel

Drought is Harmful for Colorado Watersports Business. So Are Misperceptions About Drought

Chris Moffett still remembers the challenges of summer 2012. At the time, Moffett was a guide on the Arkansas River in Cañon City, where he would show up to work several times a month only to learn he didn’t have any clients because his tour group canceled. After speaking with the clients on the phone, Moffett, who’s lived in Cañon City for two decades, learned they bailed because they were concerned about drought, or they’d seen national news reports about a fire in Colorado and thought the whole state was ablaze. In reality, the fire was in Durango—some 250 miles southwest of Cañon City.

As was the case in 2012, Colorado is currently experiencing a drought that promises to cause all sorts of challenges—from the fear of wildfires to water shortages for farmers and ranchers—in the months ahead. But all of the attention on a very real problem can have unintended consequences for tourism in certain parts of the state. The national perception of fires “affects our local economy massively,” says Moffett, who’s the event coordinator for the Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival and president of the nonprofit Royal Gorge River Initiative Organization, which works to promote ​​water safety education, river conservation, and whitewater recreation in Fremont County.

“Obviously there’s a baseline of water that we need to support our business,” says Mike Harvey, a whitewater park designer and co-founder of Badfish SUP in Salida. “When the media is all focused on drought and fires, Armageddon, that’s bad for business, too.”

In years like 2022 where the majority of the state is experiencing some level of drought—and news headlines say things like “The American West is primed for a summer of fire”—“word gets out,” Moffett says. People considering boating trips to Cañon City may cancel plans because they believe there’s not enough water in the river, which, Moffett says, “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The Arkansas River is supported by the Voluntary Flow Management Program (VFMP), a decades-long collaborative effort between water owners, including Pueblo’s Board of Water Works and outfitters, that aims to ensure the Arkansas River flows at a target of 700 cubic feet per second from July 1 through August 15. The program, which relies on water imported from other areas of the state, is designed to support river recreation in the summer and fishing for brown trout other times of the year. That means even in a drought year, there is typically enough water in the Arkansas for watersports.

The Arkansas River—which runs through Buena Vista, Salida, and Cañon City, among other Colorado towns—is the most rafted river in the nation, according to 2018 data from the America Outdoors Association. Even in 2020, when river usage dipped during the first pandemic surge by about 17 percent compared to 2019, the Arkansas River hosted some 182,005 commercial day trips, which generated an economic impact of $62.9 million, per the 2020 Colorado River Outfitters Association’s report.

Small towns like Cañon City rely heavily on river-centered tourism. “We need that influx of visitors to come in June, July, and August to provide our local economy with the money it needs to survive throughout the year,” Moffett says.

Rick Harrmann, manager of economic development for Cañon City and co-chair of the Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival, says the city sees between 400,000 and 500,000 tourists a year, and that the vast majority of Cañon City summertime tourism, which includes activities like rafting, fly fishing, ziplining, and train rides alongside the Arkansas, is based on the river. The river, he says, is “a very big asset.”

With the exception of rafting aficionados, most people don’t notice fluctuations in the water level, says Harrmann, who’s lived in Cañon City for about six-and-a-half years. And a big snowpack year “isn’t necessarily good for business,” says Harvey, since high water levels can create conditions that are too dangerous for most people to raft in—or at least have an enjoyable experience in.

Misperceptions about high water levels can also hurt business. The worst effect Moffett has seen on the Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival was in 2019 when a news crew from Colorado Springs came to town. After interviewing someone about the high river levels that year, the reporter signed off the segment wondering whether the festival would take place at all. “That year was our worst year,” Moffett says. “We made like 25 percent of what we make usually.”

This year, because of a late season snowstorm, streamflow projections for the Arkansas River are now at 100 percent, says Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, an organization involved in decision making for the VFMP. The outlook for the entire season is “hard to predict,” Hamel says, but “things are lining up to be pretty solid” for the VFMP. Because of the VFMP and water from this year’s snowpack, Harvey also believes it will be a fine season.

But Harvey worries about the long-term trend of less snowpack and less water. “I just have to believe there’s going to be a day of reckoning at some point, where there’s just not enough water to do everything everybody wants,” Harvey says. “That would obviously not just impact my business, but have pretty broad implications.”

Moffett echoes similar concerns. “It’s really important to me and this community to be able to use the river, and really not just from a recreation point of view,” he says. “We need a healthy river for everybody, for all the flora and fauna in the area.”

Dan Kirmer, Colorado Parks and Wildlife park manager with John Martin Reservoir State Park in Bent County, says the parts of the state, like the Eastern Plains, are in a “downward cycle” of less water right now. But based on his experience, the downward cycle is often followed by a period of increased precipitation. “There’s some hope,” he says, “at the beginning of each season.”

(Read more: Southwest Colorado’s Snowpack Is Almost Completely Gone. Here’s What It Means for Summer) 

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