River Runners: The Latest Victims of Climate Change
Photo: Grand Canyon NPS
For the contiguous United States, the first nine months of 2012 were the warmest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As of October 2, 64 percent of the United States was in the middle of a drought. Wyoming and Colorado experienced the warmest summer on record, while Wyoming and Nevada saw the driest summer on record. In western and central regions of the country, wildfires burned a record-breaking 3.6 million acres in August.
In other words, it was a cruel summer. It stressed wildlife and depleted water reserves, but it also made life difficult for river runners in the Mountain West, whose business success is dictated largely by the health of the rivers they run. This followed very big water during the summer of 2011, thanks to major snowfall during the 2010-2011 season.
"We're usually kayaking in March, April, May, and usually into June," said Peter Van De Carr, who operates Backdoor Sports in Steamboat Springs and runs the Yampa River. "But last summer, we were done [kayaking] at the end of March. As of June 20, the river was 40 cubic feet per second and going down. A year before, June 20, 2011, it was 4,000cfs and going up."
"Some would say it's not climate change, but climate strange, with one of the wettest years on record followed by one of the driest," said Soren Jespersen, northwest Colorado wildlands coordinator for the Wilderness Society. "I think all the businesses that depend somewhat on consistent weather patterns are having a hard time adjusting to these shifts, whether it be ski resorts or river guides."
In addition to low water issues, add fear over wildfires and suddenly keeping a guiding business afloat becomes even harder. When I asked fellow Coloradan Bill Dvorak how this past summer affected his efforts to keep his rafts full on the Arkansas River, where he operates Dvorak Expeditions, he didn't pull any punches. "One thing that affects it is the spin that people like you put on these stories," he said, referencing news coverage of wildfires that he feels paints too broad a stroke and often infers that wildfires impact a larger area that they actually do.
"The average consumer is poorly educated when it comes to geography," Dvorak added. They hear about a fire and they think it is impacting a larger area than it is, he says, noting that while the Waldo Fire raged near Colorado Springs, around 100 miles away, his phone was not ringing much except for people calling to make cancellations.
Both Van De Carr and Dvorak agree that climate change is real and is making it more difficult to operate their businesses. "Big water followed by drought—those events are going to intensify, and I believe in climate change," Dvorak said. Low water "shut us down completely several times this year," said Van De Carr.
Outfitters are using a range of approaches to react to these erratic conditions in their respective home offices, so to speak. Dvorak, for example, uses boats that are sized appropriately for water levels and is fortunate in that there are some man-made controls over water levels in the Arkansas River. "I don't run spring rivers [fed by snowpack] anymore," Dvorak said. "They are just so unpredictable, it's harder to run those."
But because the Yampa River, which is Van De Carr's home base, does not have any major water level controls (via diversions or dams), various stakeholders have begun working together to manage the river and reduce negative impacts. "We are especially vulnerable to climate change—or drought, or whatever you want to call it—because we are so dependent on the river's natural hydrograph. When it is much bigger or smaller, everything has to change," Van De Carr said.
During hot summers with low water levels and in years with low precipitation, fish are generally stressed by increased water temperatures and reduced food sources. Paddling and fishing rivers when they are in this vulnerable state only exacerbates these stresses on fish, as do water withdrawals used for agriculture. The community of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, through which the Yampa flows, has set limits on river use that are aimed at reducing recreational impacts. "We came to this set of rules collectively," Van De Carr said. "If the river is under 85cfs, we don't run it."
This past summer, this meant that he was forced to lay off his employees after the river flowed below this limit for a number of days, and then he had to scramble to find replacement employees once mid-summer rains made the river runnable again. Still, he says the community's efforts to adapt to the low water ultimately helped him.
These efforts included farmers and ranchers who limited their take of the river for irrigation. It also included, Van De Carr said, an "unprecedented" contribution from the Colorado Water Trust, which worked with local water agencies to acquire water from a nearby reservoir in order to boost flow. "It purchased 4,000 acre feet of water, through a $140,000 contribution," he explained.
This marks an important evolution in using Colorado's water laws. Historically, Van De Carr said, "it's been a consumptive world" in which water resources are removed. That's starting to change as municipalities begin realizing how important it is to have healthy rivers, not just to support agriculture and industry but also to support recreation and tourism.
But Soren Jespersen believes these efforts are not enough on their own. "Adaptation is one tool but unfortunately, climate change is going to move faster than we’re moving on these solutions," he said. "We need to get to the source of the problem, and that source is much bigger than a drought or flood. Americans have a long history of putting our minds to something and getting it done, but when it comes to our dependence on oil and gas, we're failing."
—Mary Catherine O'Connor