River season is underway in Moab and excited tourists are lining up for guided tours rafting down the Colorado River. Extremely low water levels are causing challenges for local guides and commercial trips, leading many to question whether this river season will give the tourists what they are looking for.
The river’s tributaries stem from the snowmelt of the Rocky Mountain Range in Colorado. Just as the snow levels fluctuate from year to year, the river does as well. This past winter the Rocky Mountains received a near-historic low amount of snowfall which has dictated a low water season throughout the West.
The volume and speed of a flowing river is measured in cubic feet per second (CFS). This year the gauge at American Whitewater reported the CFS peaked on May 27 at 8,060 CFS. In comparison, on the same date in 2017 the gauge measured at 21,900 CFS and rose from there.
The Fisher Towers or ‘Daily’ stretch is the most popular section on the Colorado River for commercial outfitters in the Moab area. During a low season, the section is a slow-moving Class II with more float time than whitewater. Guides have to row a significant amount due to the meandering pace of the river. “During low water we have to be on our game,” said Samantha Derbyshire, an experienced guide at O.A.R.S. “Every guide needs to understand how to read water in order to stay in the fastest current. Otherwise, they’ll be doing extra unnecessary work.” Some outfitters will also begin their trips at Onion Creek instead of Hittle Bottom, which cuts out 2.1 miles of flat water. This helps to alleviate extra work for both guides and customers, as well as completing the trip on time.
However, the Daily is only one stretch of the Colorado River that visitors can choose for their rafting trip. “The Daily stretch gets rough during a low-water season, but Westwater and Cataract are still really fun whitewater sections,” said Addy Fagan, a local river guide.
Westwater Canyon is a 17-mile Class III-IV section on the Colorado River. Many outfitters do not run this section at high water due to the dangerous hydraulics that form in the narrow canyon. In 2015, two separate deaths occurred on June 4 when the CFS reached over 21,000, which resulted in many outfitters becoming extremely strict in choosing which guides were skilled enough to take passengers commercially. “Lots of guides are getting opportunities to be checked out on Westwater this season because the river is at a forgiving and fun level to learn,” said Russell Reali, a guide at Canyon Voyages.
Cataract Canyon is a Class III-V section located at the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. On May 27 the CFS reached 19,460--higher than both the Daily and Westwater. The Green River’s water stems from the snowmelt in Wyoming, and this past winter those mountains received more snowfall than in Colorado. A high water season on Cataract Canyon can mean powerful eddies, huge wave-trains and unforgiving hydraulics. Names such as ‘Purgatory,’ ‘Little Niagara,’ and ‘Satan’s Guts’ live up to expectations. River navigation through Cataract Canyon at a low CFS is less treacherous but still far from easy. “Low water provides its own challenges with slow currents and technical rock sections,” Said Fagan. “These sort of seasons create tough river guides because it’s a lot of hard work.”
All three guides are optimistic about this year’s boating season. “The river might be low but the enthusiasm isn’t,” said Reali. “We’re still having a great time on the river with the guests.”