Patty Murphy of Greensboro, Pa., listened intently to the safety instructions when she took a ride with Canyonlands by Night on the Colorado River.
“He said that there were lifejackets on board but not to get them wet,” she said. “If we fell out of the boat, all we needed to do was stand up. It’s only 3 feet deep.”
The water this year is low, slow and warm. On Tuesday, the Colorado River was 70 degrees and running at 4,100 cubic feet per second (cfs), according to the United States Geological Survey gauging station near the Utah/Colorado border. The temperature and flow would suggest averages seen in August. In May, the river usually runs high and the water is cold from snowmelt.
Last year at this time, the river was 12 degrees colder and running at 21,000 cfs. In 2011, water flow peaked in June at 48,500 cfs.
“It is low,” said Chris Wilkowske, supervising hydrologist at the USGS Moab Field Office. “Statistics show that it should be around 18,000 cfs.”
Without rain and the flash floods that accompany the rain, the river may only continue to drop in volume for the season.
“It can get to the low level of 2002,” Wilkowske said, referring to the lowest water flow year on record. “And 2002 was preceeded by a couple of years of drought.”
The peak stream flow on the Moab Daily, a 13-mile stretch of river along Hwy. 128 north of Moab, in 2002 was 6,540 cfs on Sept. 20 after a flashflood. The peak for 2012 so far was 5,250 cfs on April 4.
Despite the low water flow, though, river trip bookings are up and exceeding expectations, said Don Oblak, owner of Canyon Voyages, a river company that takes guests down the Moab Daily.
“We haven’t had to adapt yet,” Oblak said. “The river is at average summer levels. Trips are maybe a half-hour longer than usual and river guides are rowing more.”
He’s not planning to change the Moab Daily itinerary. Guides will still put in at Hittle Bottom for full-day trips and at Rocky Rapid for half-day trips.
Canyon Voyages won’t resort to motors to make the trip faster, Oblak said, even as the water volume continues to drop and the river slows. The company will rely on river guides to row.
“They’re going to be strong this year,” he said.
Josh Surkes, co-owner of Paddle Moab, couldn’t ask for a better year to begin his new business. When he and his fiancé Abbi Long were planning to start their stand-up paddle boarding business last winter, he was nervous it would be a repeat high water year.
“The water being low this year is perfect,” he said.
Surkes grew up surfing in Virginia. He visited Moab six years ago and never left, finding work as a river guide on the Colorado and Green Rivers. Something clicked with the former surfer when he first saw people paddle boarding on the Colorado River, he said.
Surkes has been doing an average of two tours a day since mid-April. He said he takes the more timid guests downstream with a put-in at Wall Street off Potash Road and take-out at Gold Bar Campground. For the more adventurous, he goes upstream and begins a tour where the Moab Daily ends at Take-Out Beach 11 miles up Hwy. 128. This gives his guests a chance to try out a few small ripples and waves at Big Bend Rapid.
“Some are standing, some are kneeling, some are swimming,” he said of new paddle boarders going through the rapids. “One 11-year-old girl was the only one in her family of five to stay standing.”
Paddle boarding can still be done at higher water levels, he said, but the low water conditions offer more time for education.
“We can teach them how to paddleboard. We can spend time telling them about the geology. We can teach people about the river, about the eddys and the channels,” he said. “When they fall off they can just reach out and grab their board without having to swim after it.”
As the water slows down, some water enthusiasts are using poorer judgment. Some try to float the river on pool toys. Others skip using a life jacket.
“I usually see this kind of behavior in July or August,” said Brody Young, a river ranger with the State of Utah Division of Natural Resources.
Failure to wear a lifejacket on Moab Daily is a Class B Misdemeanor punishable by a substantial fine set by the discretion of the Grand County Justice Court.
“There are no warnings. This is a life and safety issue,” said Tony White, Lieutenant for the State of Utah Division of Natural Resources. “If we see someone without a lifejacket, we cite and remove them from the river.”
Patrolling the river is a multi-agency task with officers from the Bureau of Land Management and State of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources able to write citations as well.
“We’re out and about,” White said.
Last year, Utah had eight boating-related fatalities. Four were on the river. Four of the victims weren’t wearing lifejackets.
“Life jackets save lives,” White said.
U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III personal flotation devices are required by all boaters from Dewey Bridge to Drink’s Canyon. From Drink’s Canyon to the Confluence all boaters under the age of 13 must be wearing a lifejacket. Lifejackets need to be on and the buckles clasped.
The water volume and temperature has no bearing on whether lifejackets must be worn.
“If heat’s an issue, then jump in the water,” Young said.