Colorado River Drought Affecting Rafting Trips

Every rafter's dream comes true when they find themselves basking in the sun on the banks of the Colorado River. The river leaps and jumps through the rock gardens next to the shore. Most times, rafting trips start smoothly when rafters are pushed off the upstream launch ramp. When the fun begins, your heartbeats could be heightened to conquer the rapids of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park. And that is one of the things that make river rafting a popular recreation.


What happened to Wild Colorado?

In 1919, Congress established the National Park with no dams in view to slow the river down. It rushed through the Colorado Basin, after making its way to the rough mountains, and finally to the ramparts of several layers of the Grand Canyon. Back then, the flow of the river water was only controlled by the snowmelt through the mountains during spring seasons.

Back then, reports show that the early 1900s, 1940s, and 1980s had the maximum flow. However, the last 60 years changed wild Colorado due to climate change and consequent developments along the way.

The health of the Colorado River starts to degrade about 700 miles far at the headwaters on the western lower basin of Rocky Mountain National Park. The river's health worsens as we move from there to the languid Lake Powell across the Glen Canyon Dam. From there, almost everything started going downhill, thereby making it hard for some people to enjoy their normal rafting recreation.

The Importance of the Colorado River

The Colorado River is considered the center of many things in the region. It is not only the breadwinner for many families but also the lifeblood of Colorado. For the tribes too, it is the backbone of all their lives. Their lives have been compromised due to climate change and dams trying to strangle the river and rob it of its ecology.

What is happening to the Colorado River?

The lives of the people in the upper and lower basin states are in jeopardy due to the long droughts in the Southwest and have started since the starting period of the 21st century. The upper basin states saw a declining tourist traffic and raft trips due to the long drought stretches, especially from 2002 to 2005 and 2012 to 2020. Moreover, the reduction of snowfall in the headwaters of the river has greatly affected the flow of the Colorado River.


Is rafting still possible in the Colorado River?

So, here comes the big question, whether rafting is possible in the Colorado River. Even after long-lasting droughts, there is enough water and plenty of flow in the Colorado River to support rafting trips and adventures in a normal season.

Many rapid rivers in the Grand Canyon are more adventurous, rockier, and challenging during the low flows. Some rapids also throw bigger waves when there is lower flow and are calmer during the high flow rafting season. Whether the flows are low or high, it is always exciting to have a rafting experience in Grand Canyon Park and Lake Powell

On top of all this, the United States government controls hydroelectric power, which has allowed around 8.23 million acre-feet of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon dam and then to the Grand Canyon National park. This figure is also set to reduce further by almost a million-acre due to the receding snowmelt. The life of the river and the economy of the river basin states have been greatly affected by the drought. 

Why is the Colorado River becoming dangerous?

Rafting in Colorado is in a dire stage as people won't face death or serious accidents due to drowning as it happened years ago. 

There is also another side of this coin. Years ago, the rampant flow of the Colorado River carried sediments and sands through the way to the river basin. These materials are eminent for building and re-building beaches and sandbars. But, in recent times, the sediments are trapped behind the dams of the lower basin.

What is drought?

Drought, as defined by the United States Geological Survey(USGS) is a period when the state is in drier than usual conditions that result in water-related problems. Drought is characterized by a reduction of precipitation, such as sleet, snow, or rain, for the given period, hence resulting in water shortage in the area. Assuming this is your first time, this is something that needs consideration when you are planning for the next rafting season.

What are the general causes of drought?

There are several causes of drought. Some of them are listed below: 

  • Natural causes: Sometimes droughts occur naturally. Since years ago, humankind has witnessed natural-occurring droughts which are heightened by the cyclones, or excess amount of heat in the land and sea.
  • Altering weather patterns: The circulation of air in the atmosphere has highly altered the distribution of precipitation all over the world. The air circulation patterns are affected due to the anomaly in surface temperature. 
  • Increasing water demands: Drought can be caused due to the irregularity in the demand and supply of water. The increase in the demand for water to sustain the human race and agricultural practices has caused droughts in recent years. 
  • Soil degradation and deforestation: Trees are very important for all aspects of our ecosystem. They are vital for the release of moisture in the atmosphere and to maintain the water balance in the atmosphere. Due to the constant destruction of the forests by humans, droughts have increased in recent years. As the vegetation and forests have hugely reduced in recent years, less water is available for the water cycle. This hampers the entire ecosystem and makes the areas vulnerable to droughts.
  • Global warming: The term does not need any explanation. The planet is being heated at startling rates which can be one of the primary reasons for the long-lasting droughts.
  • Climate change: The increasing temperature is impacting the climate and weather of several regions. They make the dry areas drier and the wet areas wetter. This also leads to an increase in natural calamities like cyclones, tornados, and droughts. 

What are the general effects of drought?

Droughts are known to have some dangerous effects on mankind. Some of them are listed below.

  • Famine and hunger: Droughts often result in scarcity of water in regions and hence there is very little water for irrigation and all agricultural purposes. Due to lack of natural rain, the land remains dry for long periods which ultimately destroys the food crops. Therefore, longer periods of drought can cause famine and cause severe issues for the region. 
  • Scarcity of clean drinking water: The droughts eventually imply that there is not enough water to use or drink. This compels people to drink water from unclean sources and degrade their health. The deficiency of clean water also means that there is not enough water to maintain personal hygiene or public sanitation that causes serious health issues. Several people die due to the lack of access to sanitation and clean water.
  • Wildlife also suffers: The region which suffers from droughts often has low precipitation and moisture. This causes dangerous situations in the forests and fires that might cause deaths and property damage. This also leads to a shortage of food supplies. The wild animals also face scarcity of water and are bound to invade human properties in search of water. This is life-threatening and creates havoc among the people. 
  • Power cuts: Most people in the world are dependent on hydroelectric power for electricity. Droughts generally reduce the water in the reservoirs behind dams for creating hydroelectric power. This often turns out to be problematic for smaller and under-developed regions that are generally dependent on one turbine for their power supply. 
  • Relocation and migration: Many people and even animals try to relocate and settle in other places so they have enough food, less disease and conflicts, and a better supply of water. 

What are the effects of drought on the Colorado River?

If the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon National Park became lower than people can navigate, then most southwestern communities face huge issues to start with. The rafting industry will be hampered due to a reduction in tourism revenue. But above all, the whole region can face long years of droughts and/or climate change.

The situation must be handled with precision planning and execution. The changes in the water conservation methods will ensure that the coming generations can also enjoy rafting adventures in the Colorado River. 

Are changes possible for the Colorado River and basin states?

There are several interest groups and stakeholders who use their brains, power, and money for the Colorado River water. The changes which are planned in the Colorado River and the basin states by the stakeholders are a long legal affair and will also hamper the water municipalities and management of both the lower basin states and upper basin states. 

Even if Colorado River plans are changed frequently. The lower basin states like California, Arizona, Mexico, and Indigenous tribes will suffer a shortage of water and related problems as there won't be enough water for the upper basin states too. Also, if the changes are implemented, then there won't be enough water current or flow for rafting to be possible through the Grand Canyon.

As of today, it is observed that the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon National park flows at a good rate after the service to the dams. It has only experienced a slight reduction in the flow from the last couple of years. 

Furthermore, it is also estimated that the flow will be similar in the coming years if the federal laws are not altered. As long as the snow melts and enough water is contained in the reservoirs, the Colorado river basin and Lake Powell will not run dry. Possibly, there will be enough water for irrigation in the southern states. Also, the water in the river flows at a good rate even during low flows, so rafting in the Colorado river basin is not going to stop any time soon.

For the year 2021, it is estimated that the required amount of 8.23 million acre-feet of water will flow to the lower basin states of the river in the remaining time of the year. Will climate change affect this? It is left for us to find out.

The locals have seen the worse

The locals who rely solely on the raft adventures are not new to fewer visitors in a particular rafting season. They have dealt with hotter and drier weather due to climate change which had a worse effect on them than the pandemic.

The water resources are highly affected by the dry conditions since last year. The northeastern Yampa river is among those to receive the lowest flow. The below-average snowmelt has led to drier conditions. The locals are well aware of the drought since 2002 and have been planning accordingly.

Now, the focus has been shifted from rafting and kayaking for a few months and then to fishing and other recreational activities. 

Some steps to tackle the drought

However, there has been some help from various businesses and foundations to improve the conditions of the Colorado River waters. They have planned to release the water from the upstream reservoir so that the flow increases downstream. Besides, cottonwood trees are planted to cool the river down by providing shade. These efforts are likely to increase the water flow in the coming years. 

Are people still interested in the rafting experience in Grand Canyon Park?

Despite the water being at its lowest, children and raft enthusiasts continue to flock the waters. One whitewater rafting company official said that when you are dependent on mother nature for your living, you are in a relationship with the turbulent weather. They also said that after the pandemic, the increase in demand will be a redemption from last year. 

Is rafting possible in the Colorado River?

So, here comes the big question, whether rafting is possible in the Colorado River. Even after long-lasting droughts, there is enough water and plenty of flow in the Colorado River to support rafting trips and adventures. Many rapid rivers in the Grand Canyon are more adventurous, rockier, and challenging during the low flows.

Some rapids also throw bigger waves when there is lower flow and are calmer during the high water flow rafting season. Whether the flows are low or high, it is always exciting to have a rafting experience in Grand Canyon Park. When you are ready for the fun, you can get in touch with Advantage Grand Canyon to book your rafting trip. We can help you plan a perfect trip during the high water and low water rafting seasons.

What are the things to consider when planning a rafting trip?

The river atmosphere and environment are extremely fluctuating whether they are found in the mountains, plains, or valleys.

Several factors influence the water that flows through the lower or upper basin. Basic things like flow rate, clarity, and water levels must be considered as they vary with environmental causes like temperature, snowmelt, and rain. Like I have seen most times, the water levels vary with four different seasons. The rainstorms and snowmelt are the primary factors affecting this. The companies suggest the best time to visit the river for their rafting experience.

What causes the water levels to fluctuate?

As the river through the grand canyon is heavily influenced by the mountains, these are some factors that cause the water levels to fluctuate. 

  • Snowmelt: Those who are not aware of the way in the mountains might not understand how the snow that fell in December can influence the river in June. This is basically how the mountains determine the flow of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. During the colder months, the depth of snow is primary in determining the flow of the Colorado River water during the colder months. The deep snow is the main reason to decide how much water will flow through the river, streams, and the upper and lower basin states. 
  • Controller flow: The dams in the Colorado river enable people to manipulate the flow of the water. On popular rafting rivers like the Arkansas River through Grand Canyon park, the dams control the rate of flow to provide the best rafting experience. If you know about the cubic feet per second(CFS) for rafting of a river, then you can plan the trip for you or your family accordingly. For headers, 700 CFS is a medium flow rate while 2500 CGS is a higher flow rate for the Colorado River. 

How do the Colorado River water levels look for planning a rafting trip this year?

The weather patterns of previous years highly influence the water levels of this year. The Colorado summers generally lead to a predictable monsoon season. The warm air from Mexico is coupled with the dry, cold air in the Colorado Rockies.

Therefore, July and August see regular thunderstorm activities. In 2020, lesser rains led to drought conditions in the lower and upper basin states. 

But, the snowpack for 2020-21 looked good. Although they started slow, they picked up pace in February and March. The wetter spring added to the overall water and snowpack in the mountains. Things look better as the weather is warming the snow faster than usual and higher flows are expected sooner than usual. 

By the later part of June, the snowpack will completely melt and most regions will rely on the rain to accelerate downstream. We have seen some experts suggest that monsoon moisture will be evident in increasing the water flow in the river through the Grand Canyon in the summer months. These are some of the factors to consider when you are planning a Colorado River rafting trip.

Do higher flows mean better Rapids?

Several factors determine whether the higher water ensures better rapids or not. The river dynamics like waterfalls and rapids are greatly influenced by the rising waters. Finally, it comes down to personal preference whether you choose the lower conditions or high water rapids. What we suggest to our rafting trip clients is to consider your risk tolerance, especially with all things outdoor adventures.

The increased water flows cause the rapids to grow larger. They hold colder water and develop strong currents.

That said, the higher water calls for more challenging rafting experiences. Those who are adventurous in rafting prefer these hardcore conditions during higher waters. 

We have always observed that higher water is better for bigger and stronger rapids but it might not be ideal for rafting. The high water often creates fewer waves as the factors affecting the waves are much under the water now. So, the river tends to get smoother resulting in lesser hydraulics or waves. This also leads to faster rafting trips which means less time to enjoy the scenic beauty of the waters.

Again, early weather conditions or cold water means that you need extra wetsuits which may not convenient for most people. Here are some of the reasons we recommend a detailed grand canyon rafting trip itinerary. From the rafting trip cost to required materials and safety measures, Advantage Grand Canyon can help you plan a fun-filled outdoor experience.

Why choose Advantage Grand Canyon for your river rafting trip?

The Advantage Grand Canyon is a specialized tour guide and rafting trip booking company that plans the Grand Canyon rafting experience in every season and on every route. We are specialists and plan the trip according to the requirements of the tourist.

When is the ideal time to go river rafting in the Colorado River?

The ideal time to go rafting often varies from person to person. It hugely depends on your skill level and interests. For adventurous junkies, the early summer or late spring is the ideal season with higher water levels. As for families or beginners, the late summer seems more appropriate when the water levels come down to the medium level. 

The most popular rafting months have always been June and July in the Colorado River waters. During these summer months, the snowpack melts and there is stronger downstream flow due to the snow of the last winter.

Also, these heavy streams are responsible for filling the watersheds of the Arkansas River. So, to enjoy the high waters of the Colorado River, June and early July are the best times. 

As the summer months approached late July, August, and September, the river experienced medium flow as most of the snowpack had already melted by that time. The slower rafting conditions might not be suitable for the adrenaline junkies but make for a perfect family rafting experience. The Royal Gorge in August and September is perfect for small crowds and calmer waters. 

What is your preferred raft?

If you are planning to travel with Advantage Grand Canyon, then you can choose between motorized and non-motorized rafts according to your preference. Let's have a look at each of them. 

Motorized rafting trips: These trips are available in 11 out of the 15 Grand Canyon Rivers. Motor trips are more popular than manual raft trips and there are several reasons for it. It saves both energy and time and allows you to cover larger distances.

With minimal effort, it enables you to experience the exciting rapids, breathtaking side canyons, ancient geographical figures, and stunning sceneries. You can also explore diverse fields and places of attraction across the Colorado River. Many people wonder whether the motor-controlled raft will be as exciting as the non-motorized one.

In this case, you won't be paddling your raft personally but your trip will be as adventurous if not more. You can choose to sit in front or center according to your preference when going through the rocking rapids of the Colorado River.

You can also enjoy the raft ride while the tour guide does all the control of the steering of the raft. The motorized is perfect for families and individuals who do not have experience in rafting. You can also enjoy several other activities when you are traveling through a motorized raft-like exploring hidden caves and waterfalls, hiking the side canyons.

You can also discover the exotic flora and fauna of the Grand Canyon National park. For any questions related to the geology or wildlife of the canyon, you can feel free to ask the river expert and be amazed by their responses. 

Non-motorized rafting trips: Non-motorized rafting is for the traditional and more authentic rafting experience. These rafts are smaller in size and lighter in weight. As they are self-controlled, it takes more time to navigate through the Colorado river waters. When you want to explore the canyon with non-motorized rafts, there are four different options for you. 

  • Oar raft trip: This is the most popular rafting type and is allowed by 12 to 15 outfitters. These rafts are suitable for calmer waters of the Colorado River. It is a small raft that is 18-foot long and allows the tourists to experience the rapids to their full potential. The passengers might take charge of the steering from time to time but mostly the river guide is at the center of the raft and controls the steering and movement of the raft. These rafts are powered by the oars. Their maximum speed is 4mph. 
  • Paddle raft trip: This is a smaller raft option and can accommodate around 4 out of 15 outfitter options. It is physically the most exhausting rafting experience. The river guide will provide you with a small paddle and educate you on the ways to control, speed up and speed down the raft. This raft is ideal for 4 to 8 tourists at one time. This raft is suitable for slow-paced calmer waters as it is much smaller than oar-powered or motorized rafts.
  • Hybrid raft trip: This is also a small raft type and can accommodate from 4 out of 15 outfitters. As the name suggests, this raft has 4 oars and 1 paddle raft which could be used for rotation by the passengers. One outfitter also provides inflatable kayaks. 
  • Dory Raft Trip: This is also a smaller rafting type. It is offered by 5 out of 15 outfitters. The small size makes the raft more agile and allows the tourists to experience the rapids more closely.

How much time do you need for the rafting experience of a lifetime?

When you are trusting Advantage Grand Canyon for your rafting experience, you are offered various durations for rafting. They are all listed below. 

  • Short trip(3-5 days): If you are running low with time and still want to experience camping and rafting in Colorado in just a few days. This trip only offers motorized raft types in the upper and lower canyon and non-motorized raft types in the Western routes. Here, you can enjoy hikes at the start and end of the trip for upper and lower routes but you cannot include the hikes in the Western Canyon route within this time.

Canyon routes offered: Lower, Upper or Western routes of Grand Canyon

Raft types offered: Motor rafts(for Lower or Upper routes) and Oar or Dory rafts(for Western routes) 

  • Medium length trip(6-9 days): This trip will enable you to see the upper or lower route of the Grand Canyon in a non-motorized canyon or you can also see the full canyon if you are going for the motorized raft. The non-motor raft trips include long hikes at the start and end of the trips but the motor trips or the Full Canyon trips do not include the long hikes.

Canyon routes offered: Lower, Upper, or Full routes of Grand Canyon

Raft types offered: Motor rafts and all kinds of non-motor rafts like paddle, oar, hybrid, or dory

  • Long trip(12-18 days): This trip only allows non-motor rafts so that you can enjoy the Full Canyon within the span of 12-18 days. All the non-motor options like Dory, Hybrid, Oar, or Paddle. Also, there are no longer hikes required at the start or the end of the Full Grand Canyon trips. 

Canyon routes offered: Full Canyon

Raft types offered: No motor rafts, all kinds of non-motor rafts like oar, paddle, dory, and hybrid.

What are Grand Canyon routes available for river rafting?

There are various combinations of travel points and the Advantage Grand Canyon offers 4 different routes for rafting in the Colorado River. There is more than one exit location for most routes so there can be different duration according to different outfitters.

For instance, one outfitter can raft by covering 180 miles in just 6 days of the Full Canyon while the other outfitter can cover 280 miles in the river in the duration of 8 days. For a full idea, let us look at the different routes. 

  • Full Canyon: This is a long trip that starts at 0 river mile(AZ, Marble Canyon, Lees Ferry) and ends at one of the three exit points 188 river miles(helicopter exit-Whitmore Wash), 225 river miles(drive exit- Diamond Creek) or 280 river miles(drive exit- Lake Mead). These are perfect for people who want to avoid hikes at the start or end of the raft journey which are necessary for upper or Lower Grand Canyon raft trips.
  • Upper Canyon: This trip begins at 0 river mile(AZ, Marble Canyon, Lees Ferry). These are low points where you will be driven to the location and then walked to the rafts. These trips end at 88 or 89 river miles with a long hike ascending out of the Grand Canyon of 7.5 to 9.5 miles.
  • Lower Canyon: This trip starts at the north of the south rim of the Grand Canyon Village. Then, you need to come down by hiking 7.5 to 9.5 miles through the bright angel trail. There are three exit points in the Lower Grand Canyon and depending on the outfitter’s itinerary- 188 river miles (helicopter ride-Whitmore Wash), 225 river miles (drive out-Diamond Creek), or 280 river miles (drive out-Lake Mead).
  • Western Canyon: These trips are the western 100 miles of the Colorado River which begins with a helicopter ride at river mile 188(Whitmore Wash) in the Grand Canyon. After covering a distance of 100 river miles, you are driven to 280(Lake Mead) at the end. All these trips start and end in Las Vegas so you can avoid the long hikes at the start and end of the trips. You can choose the upper and lower canyon route trips for the Western Canyon.

What should you pack for raft trips?

There are some particular items that you need to pack for non-motor, motor, partial and full raft trips. You will also be provided with a specific packing list by each outfitter. 

  • Small dry bag
  • Two large dry bag
  • Sleep kit: Sleep kit, Sheet and Ground Tarp, Sleeping cot(usually on motor trips), 
  • Mattress pad
  • Camp chair(sometimes)
  • 2 person tent
  • Duffel bag(for Full Grand Canyon or Western Canyon trips)
  • Back lack or Semi-rigid suitcase (for Upper or Lower Canyon trips)
  • Clothing Upper body: Rain jacket(to keep the water out), cotton t-shirt (to keep cool), quick-dry or polyester t-shirt(for sweat), long sleeve lightweight shirts(extra warmth and sun protection)
  • Clothing Lower Body: Rain pants(to keep the water out), lightweight and long pants(for sun protection and extra warmth), nylon or any quick-drying fabric shorts, swimsuits. 
  • Head, feet, and hands: hiking socks, warm socks, 1 hiking boots or shoes, 1 thick-soled shoe with toe protection, moisturizing lotion for face, body, and head, lip balm, handy wipes, sunscreen, moistened towels, 1 or 2 sunglasses, hat.
  • Gear: Headlamp with spare batteries, microfiber small towel, 2 one-quartz bottles, camera with water protection with spare batteries, lock support carabiners, day pack which can fit in a small dry bag.
  • Toiletries: Biodegradable soap, moisturizer for body and face, shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste and toothbrush, prescribed medicine, tampons. 

Final word

We have tried to list everything that you need to know when you are planning a rafting trip to the exciting waters of the Colorado River. If you are looking for someone to plan your raft trips, then the Advantage Grand Canyon is your best option. They specialize in raft trips and only do what they do best. They help with everything from finding to booking and then coordinating your raft trips. The client reviews are a testament that you won't be disappointed if you trust them to arrange your rafting experience. 

For questions, suggestions or to express views about this article, feel free to use the comments section below.

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