The Colorado River looks to be in for another low water year.
Low snow fall in the Colorado and Green River basins point to lower than normal runoff levels for the coming summer, according to numbers release by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“For March the Colorado River was 55 percent of the 30-year median,” said Chris Wilkowske, a hydrologist at the USGS Moab Field Office. “Close to half its normal volume.”
On April 9 the USGS station near Cisco recorded the Colorado River running at 2,360 cubic feet per second (cfs) with the water temperature at 48.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The long-term mean flow for that date at the Cisco station is 5,790 cfs at 52.7 degrees.
Though the water levels look significantly lower than their historic averages, businesses are anticipating better water levels than last season.
“The difference between this year and last year is that it got real warm this time of the year last year,” said Brian Martinez, a local river guide.
The hope is that colder spring temperatures will keep the snow on the peaks longer, making for steadier runoff through the season.
“It’s hard to tell at this point. It depends on the next few months, whether they are wet or dry,” said Brody Young, an assistant boating coordinator with Utah State Parks and Recreation.
Because this is the second drought year in a row, there will need to be more precipitation than last year for the river levels to stay up. This is because the drier soil will absorb more water into the ground before it can make it to the Colorado River, Wilkowske said.
Annual water levels in the Colorado River have varied dramatically over the last 15 years. The lowest year in recent times was in 2002 when the water level dropped to 1,400 cfs. The highest was in 2011, said Wilkowske, when the river peaked over 49,000 cfs, nearly double the historic peak.
The highest year for the Colorado River on record was in 1884, when the river reached a staggering 125,000 cfs.
This year’s snow pack in most of the upper Colorado River Basin is only 50 percent to 80 percent of normal, according to numbers released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. This means that the water levels in the Colorado River this year will likely be a far cry from those seen in 2011.
The anticipated low runoff does not have much of an impact on the number of bookings rafting and river tour companies receive, said Sarah Sidwell, the director of marketing at Tag-A-Long Expeditions.
“We are ahead of the game this year (in bookings),” she said.
One detrimental effect of a low-water year is that it can make it hard to run shorter trips. Tag-A-Long has seen the popularity of their shorter trips increase in recent years. But with this year’s slower flow they may not be able offer some of their popular one-day excursions.
“People want to do more in a shorter amount of time. We sometimes run one-day Cataract Canyon trips, but there is not going to be enough water on the river this year,” Sidwell said.
Jet boats, another popular activity offered by several Moab river operators, are also affected by low water. The jet boats are used both for tours and for picking up groups of customers down stream and ferrying them back to Moab.
“The water level affects the jet boats a lot,” Sidwell said. “It came close to a point last year when we couldn’t use our two medium sized jet boats because they would have been too big to go downstream. Right now it looks as if it’s not a problem (this year), but if it gets lower than it did last year it’s a problem.”
On September 10, 2012, two Canyonlands By Night jet boats struck sandbars approximately seven miles downriver from Moab near the Gold Bar Recreation Area. One carried passengers on a tour; the second smaller jet boat was enroute to assist the passenger jet that had run aground earlier. There are some upsides to lower water years.
“Westwater is the absolute best in the mid and lower water range. It’s fun, it’s not terrifying,” Sidwell said.
Some safety issues come up in low water years that are not a problem when there is more water in the river.
Many visitors see the low water and, believing there is no real danger, take off their life jackets. This is a mistake, Young said.
“In lower water people tend to shed life jackets more than not,” he said.
This is dangerous because, though there were no boat-related fatalities on the river last year, there were eight in Utah in 2001. Four of those deaths involved the victim not wearing a life jacket.
Based on long-term forecasts for the upper Colorado River Basin it looks as if Young may continue having trouble keeping people in life jackets. The amount of water that makes it to the Colorado River is predicted to substantially decrease while the number of people using that water is expected to increase, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s study was conducted over three years in collaboration with representatives from the seven Colorado River Basin states.
In one of the study’s mid-range predicted scenarioes there will be a 3.2 million acre feet annual shortfall in the next several decades (out of a current total annual supply of approximately 13 million acre feet).
“That shortfall is about three times what Los Angeles uses in a year. That’s a big shortfall,” said Laurel Hagen, the director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council.
“There will most likely be a severe shortfall throughout the Colorado River basin over the next couple of decades because of a combination of climate change, higher temperature and evaporation levels, and increased demand. We have a similar thing happening in the Moab watershed but on a smaller scale,” she said.