Colorado’s Snowpack is at 539%, But What Does That Mean for Rafting?

It’s not too often that you hear so much buzz about annual snowpack numbers once we get past April in the western states, unless there’s something unusual or exciting happening. Turns out, 2019 is one of those extraordinary years, especially in Colorado where it was reported this week that the statewide snowpack is 539% of normal. So what does this mean for rafting in the region?

The unprecedented snowpack number is a bit misleading since it’s a year-over-year comparison of a particular date—in this case June 3, 2018 versus June 3, 2019—not an analysis of the winter as a whole. Still, it does mean Colorado’s snowpack is hanging on much longer than normal and will likely last much later into the summer. This slow start to the melting season, combined with a cold and wet spring that has delayed the peak-runoff window, is what has outfitters in the region particularly excited.

Colorado’s Snowpack is at 539%, But What Does That Mean for Rafting?

When comparing this season to past years, David Costlow, the executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, told the Denver Post that 2019 is shaping up to be the best rafting season of the last 20 years across the state.

All of that snowmelt doesn’t just stop at the Colorado border though. Popular rivers like the Yampa and Green in northeastern Utah, the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon, and the San Juan River in Southern Utah also benefit from an above-average snowpack in the Rockies and Upper Colorado River Basin.

OARS’ Moab Operations Manager Seth Davis reports higher flows than normal on the San Juan for this time of year, and anticipates an extended window of elevated flows through June and into July on the Desolation Canyon section of the Green River, as well as on the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon this season.

The high-water peak in Cataract Canyon, which typically averages around 45,000 to 50,0000 cubic feet per second (cfs), historically comes in late May or early June. This year, he explains, projections are showing that peak occurring the second to third week of June with flows topping out around 60,000 to 70,000 cfs. At these levels the river is running very fast with irregular and large crashing waves that pose a constant risk of turning over a boat. He points out that it’s tracking pretty closely with 2011 which was the last super memorable big-water year in Cataract Canyon.

Following the peak in June, however, Davis expects higher-than-normal flows through July in Cataract Canyon which is prompting higher minimum ages for all trips scheduled before August.

Bruce Lavoie, regional manager for OARS in Vernal, Utah, explains that despite the unprecedented statewide snowpack numbers for Colorado, it’s still a pretty normal year in terms of runoff in his region in the northeastern corner of the state.

Recent projections show the Yampa peaking later than normal the second week of June at flows around 14,000 cfs, then dropping to 10,000 cfs within a few days. Recent Yampa seasons have been cut short due to low water, but this year, Lavoie is optimistic the company will be able to run trips into July.

For the Lodore stretch of the Green River, which is controlled by releases from Flaming Gorge Dam, peak flows of 8,000 cfs have arrived but are expected to taper down below 4,000 cfs by June 16. This is good news and rafters can expect fun, family-friendly rapids throughout the summer.  

Outfitters were already enthusiastic about the 2019 whitewater outlook thanks to an above-average snowpack across the West, but due to the fairly unprecedented conditions seen this spring in the Rockies, the long term forecast is now even better than expected.

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