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Outdoor Industries Report: Rafting Economy

Business goes as the Arkansas flows


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The Arkansas River is the 800-pound rainbow trout of Colorado’s rafting industry. 

In non-drought years since 2000, commercial user days typically range between 200,000 and 250,000 on the Arkansas, according to the Colorado River Outfitters Association (CROA). That’s about 40 percent of Colorado’s total, and it places the Arkansas second in the U.S. to only the Ocoee River in Tennessee. 

CROA pegged the economic impact of commercial rafting in Colorado at nearly $200 million in 2017, up from $36 million in 1988. Run the numbers, and that means Salida, Buena Vista and Cañon City see upwards of $100 million a year flowing in from rafting. 

Bob Hamel, executive director of the Buena Vista-based Arkansas River Outfitters Association, has worked on the river since the late 1970s. “Rafting was only in its infancy,” he says. “All of a sudden, in the early ‘80s, it just exploded.” 

By the end of the decade, the Arkansas passed the American River in California to become one of the two most commercially rafted rivers in the U.S. with the Ocoee. The driver? “I think it was the same thing behind skiing, and that was just baby boomers,” Hamel says. “At first, it was 20-year-olds taking out 30-year-olds. There are trips for everybody now.” 

He points to another catalyst: the establishment of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in 1989 by the Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which improved river access and infrastructure. 

The X factor is water. “If you look back [at the 1980s], those were pretty high water years,” he says. “It’s all tied together. There’s a direct correlation between having boatable flows and the economies of these communities.” 

WATER CONNECTIONS 

“I first arrived at the Arkansas Headwaters in 2000, and our first big drought year was 2002,” says Rob White, manager of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.

It wasn’t just any drought: It was Colorado’s worst dry spell since the 1600s. The economic hit was staggering – revenue and use declined by about 45 percent from 2001 to 2002. The Upper Arkansas Voluntary Flow Management Program emerged in the wake of 2002. The goal: a minimum flow of 700 cubic feet per second on the river near Salida.

Beyond working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife partnered with utilities in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and even Ordway to better manage flows on the Arkansas. Colorado Parks and Wildlife also leases storage space in key reservoirs, and that water is marketable to other users in Pueblo and beyond. 

When the next big drought hit in 2012, “We were a little better prepared,” White says. The Bureau of Reclamation provided 5,000 acre-feet and Pueblo Water 2,000. Revenue and use was down less than 20 percent.

“Despite the fact that it was a low-water year, we only saw a 2 percent decrease in recreational use,” White says. “Revenue increased 1.6 percent from 2017 to 2018.”

Explains Hamel: “We micromanaged water and squeezed it out. We were all blown away that we were able to run the same itineraries.” He calls it “the new thinking of cooperative, collaborative efforts for win-wins all the way around.”

 Colorado Springs Utilities stores water in Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake near Leadville it can release to benefit outfitters. “We learned a long time ago we need to collaborate and cooperate,” says Abby Ortega, manager for water resources. “We work really hard to manage those flows in that stretch.” 

When Hamel reached out in 2018 and asked for a boost, it was a no-brainer, Ortega says. “We had some extra space in Pueblo Reservoir, so we just exchanged it later this fall. It didn’t affect our operations at all.” 

Ortega says 2002 was a different animal, with low water levels preceding the drought. “Our reservoirs reached a low of 43 percent of capacity in that time frame, so it limited our flexibility to operate,” she says. In 2018, the low was 87 percent, “a different ballgame.” 

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Eric Peterson

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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