OARS 2023 Whitewater Forecast: Big Water Coming to the West

ANGELS CAMP, Calif. — Thanks to record-breaking snowpack across the Western United States, outfitters are expecting an exceptional whitewater year, especially in California and Utah. 

“We are slack-jawed at the amount of snow in California this year,” says Tyler Wendt, OARS President.

The statewide snowpack in California is 237% of normal as of the historic April 1 snow survey measurements, surpassing any measurement since modern snow sensors were deployed, according to the California Department of Water Resources. That is greater than any previous April reading since the sensor network was implemented in the mid-1980s and is expected to surpass the all-time manual measurement of 1952.

Utah received more snow than 2021 and 2022 combined and toppled its 40-year statewide snowpack record that was set in 1983–a year most longtime river runners still talk about. That’s the season that the Colorado River peaked at 104,000 cfs in Cataract Canyon and further downstream is best-known for river guide Kenton Grua’s record-breaking run through the Grand Canyon in The Emerald Mile.

The weather pattern in the upcoming weeks will ultimately dictate how the 2023 rafting season stacks up against other notable high-water years. But as of the first week of April, it is still snowing in key basins with cooler temperatures delaying the start of the melt, which means that there is a high potential for 2023 to be one for the record books. No matter what pans out this spring, rafters can count on outstanding whitewater conditions across the West all season.

Historic Flows Anticipated for California Whitewater Rafting Season

Adventurous and experienced rafters will likely be able to experience some of California’s most popular rafting trips like the South Fork American and Merced River at historic flows through mid-June with more moderate family-friendly water levels expected later in the season. Minimum age requirements will be increased to 12 for the South Fork and 16 for the Merced during the high-water window. 

“The Merced will have high water, with the peak run-off happening when it gets warm, probably sometime mid-May to mid-June,” according to Wendt. “That is when we’ll see some really high flows, likely 14,000+ cfs when the Merced is just a super fun, wild, roller coaster ride.”

An easy add-on to a Yosemite National Park trip, Wendt believes the Merced will be the highlight of the California rafting season for paddlers.

Epic Whitewater Rafting Conditions in Utah

If the current cool weather pattern continues in the Colorado River Basin, the free-flowing stretch of the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon could be poised for legendary water year status last seen in 2011, with flows as high as 80,000 cfs. 

The San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River within Lake Powell, also has a snowpack that’s well above average. Not only does the snowmelt bode well for rafters on this extremely scenic river trip, all of that water will help further boost the drought-stricken Lake Powell.

In the Upper Green River Basin, the snowpack is at 128% of the April 1 average. Outfitters are expecting to hear more about planned releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir that might lessen peak flow impacts on the Green River, but rafters can look forward to fun and sustained water levels for Gates of Lodore and Desolation Canyon river trips late into the summer. 

Business as Usual in Grand Canyon, Arizona

The massive snowpack across the Colorado River Basin and California won’t fix the water crisis facing the Colorado River, but all of that snowmelt will provide another year of “business as usual” conditions for Grand Canyon river trips. 

“With both reservoirs (Powell and Mead) at historic low levels, we’re not anticipating any higher-water ‘bump’ from the above-average snowpack,” says Lars Haarr, OARS Grand Canyon Operations Manager. “I’m anticipating a flow scenario much the same as 2022. Not too low, not too high…these flows mean fun rides and big splashes, just maybe not in the rapids you’d expect.”

Haarr added, “Since northern Arizona has received an above-normal amount of precipitation this winter, it should also be a very colorful spring in the Grand Canyon with an impressive wildflower and cactus bloom.”

Read the full OARS Whitewater Forecast here

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