How white water feeds Colorado’s economy |

How white water feeds Colorado’s economy

Neal Schwieterman
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily/Performance Tours

This spring we were eating pizza in downtown Paonia and in pulls a van carrying the Colorado Rocky Mountain School kayak racing team. In quick time they wolfed down their pre-ordered seven pizzas and quickly headed over the pass to Carbondale. They were on the way home from the Colorado High School Kayaking Championships held in Durango.

In this case, Paonia was a just lucky stop on the trip home, and the restaurant owner was happy to sell seven extra pizzas on a slow evening. White water rafting accounts for $155 million tourist dollars spent in Colorado in 2011. The biggest hitter is the Arkansas River, which pulls in over 200,000 user days per year. The Colorado Basin draws about 100,000, mostly in the area around Glenwood Canyon and upstream on the main stem of the river. The Gunnison Basin draws a respectable 20,000. While white water recreation generates just 16 percent of the tourism dollars skiing does, it is still important to our local economies.

In the rural Colorado we all love, it is often difficult to make a living. Many of us know ranchers and farmers whose spouses work “regular” jobs to keep the family afloat in the agricultural life style. Even when we work “regular” jobs, our pay is well below Front Range rates.

So how do we make a rural economy work? Diversify. The more veins feeding the aorta, the quicker it fills. On the Western Slope, few of us want to make it rich, but we sure would like our children to be able to return after college and make a go of it.

Recreational rafting does not drive the economy, but is another feeder vein. The Taylor River accounts for two-thirds of the boating user days in the Gunnison Basin. The $4 million in economic activity this generates helps fill restaurants and rental houses and keeps energetic ski area workers employed off season.

In the Colorado Basin, including the Blue, Eagle and Roaring Fork rivers, direct spending totals over $12 million, generating a total of over $31 million in economic activity. Of that, boating on the Blue River contributed over $750,000 in direct spending and nearly $2 million in economic impact.

These numbers from the Colorado River Outfitters Association 2001 report do not include economic activity generated from fishing, pleasure boating on reservoirs or “private boaters,” who like the sport enough to purchase the gear to raft, kayak or canoe rivers on their own. They are not confined to the commercially run sections of rivers.

Highly skilled kayakers run the class V Oh-Be-Joyful Creek above Crested Butte or Escalante Creek below Delta. They, too, will purchase food and the occasional adult beverage during their travels. Those liking calmer waters run the “Gunny Gorge” or Ruby-Horsethief, downstream from Grand Junction. Locals benefit from renting pack animals or visits to local wineries.

All of this fun happens on the water that flows down our rivers. Some is en route to a faucet, some to a farm, and some to users outside the state. The Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables and their counterparts around the state have the responsibility to assess and plan for both “consumptive” water needs that require taking water out of streams and “non-consumptive” needs that don’t. Whenever possible, the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, of which I’m a member, encourages projects on our rivers to help both the water right holder and the users on the delivery channel. As our waters flow to their final use, all can enjoy it. With any luck, that chance restaurant visit will become the norm.

Neal Schwieterman is recreational Representative on the Gunnison Basin Roundtable and the director of the Paonia Kayak Club. The Water Center at Colorado Mesa University is working with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about how water works in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, go to

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