What current snowpack levels could mean for summer rafting in Summit County
As the height of ski season gradually comes to a close, summer recreationists are already looking at summer activities and how current snowpack levels affect forecasting of the season.
Kevin Foley, owner of Performance Tours Rafting, knows this all too well. Much of his business relies on snow that falls now to feed the Blue River later. Drought conditions in the past few years have not slowed down demand, but adequate snowpack will allow more rafters to go down rapids that are stronger.
“All the early indicators are that we’re going to see the trend that we’ve seen the last couple of years where the demand is very, very strong, and we think that’ll continue this summer based on our early season reservations,” Foley said.
According to the latest data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the snow water equivalent of the Blue River was at 92% of the median, dipping slightly since Summit County had heavy snowfall in early March. This means that, so far, there are 13.7 inches of snowpack in the area. The 30-year median level for the same date is 14.7 inches, but this week’s expected snowfall is likely to push those levels closer to the median.
Zach Hiris, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder, said that snow for the rest of the week will be on and off.
“Summit County will have a few snow showers continuing on Wednesday — maybe an inch or two at the high elevations,” Hiris said. “Then there will be a weak system going into the weekend. We’ll warm back up Saturday and have more active weather into Sunday.”
The Blue River Basin is still several weeks out from the median peak, which usually hits its crest on or around April 25. By that time, the basin usually has between 16.5 and 17 inches. This time last year — a particularly dry year across the Western Slope — the basin was already at its peak by the end of March. The most snow that had accumulated in 2021 was 13.5 inches, causing a dramatic drop throughout April and May.
Foley said although the Blue River is looking healthy at the moment, he’s hoping for at least a few more storms to hit before the season starts May 1.
“If you look at the year over year, (snowpack levels) look pretty similar,” Foley said. “One of the things that we’re waiting for is more information on what’s going to happen with (Dillon Reservoir), how much water they release down the Blue River and how much they actually release through Roberts Tunnel.”
Denver Water is entitled to water in the reservoir to supply the needs of customers in Denver. When levels in the reservoir are high enough, water is released, bolstering the Blue River’s levels and securing a longer, stronger rafting season. If it does not hit those filled levels, then water is not released, Foley said. According to Denver Water, the Dillon Reservoir is currently 78% full.
Some basins — like the Arkansas River — have mitigation strategies in place that allow for water to be released later in the summer to supplement the flow of the river if it drops below a certain level. The Blue River does not have this kind of program to fall back on, which makes it more unpredictable, Foley said.
“(Denver Water) sends us monthly projections, but honestly they don’t mean a lot until we really get into April,” Foley said. “… If (the Dillon Reservoir) doesn’t fill, then we probably aren’t going to have much of a season on the Blue River for rafting. If it does, and there’s a lot of excess snow beyond filling, then we’re able to raft there commercially.”
Last May, rafters were unsure how long their season was going to go since levels were already low at the start of the summer. A couple of weeks later, it was estimated that there was only a 10% chance that rafting in the Blue River would continue until the end of June. Foley said some companies continue on despite lower levels, but those guides usually warn customers that their rides will not be as exciting and their raft may get stuck.
Preferably, Foley said that levels would stay around at least 500 cubic feet per second. As that level rises, so does the difficulty of a certain rafting route. It is recommended that rafters look to other rivers once levels dip to 400 to 450 cubic feet per second.
Provisional data from the U.S. Geological Survey showed the average discharge for the Blue River on March 29 is 100 cubic feet per second. At midday on Tuesday, March 29, of this year, discharge levels were at 77 cubic feet per second.
Foley said it’s pretty much guaranteed to have a solid month of rafting for the Blue River in May as snowpack melts in the basin. Not all of the snow has melted earlier in the season, meaning that rapids will still be a little slower, but they gradually pick up as more of it melts, he said.
“Rain will factor in heavily,” Foley said. “We’ve had years where we have below-average snowpack, but if we have a normal rain pattern in the summer, that helps out tremendously. We’ve had that actually save seasons before — where we come in where we’re far below average on snowpack — in the months of July and August, we get rain almost every day for a little bit in the afternoon, and it’s enough to keep it at a good, exciting rafting level.”
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