Unsure waters

By FOSTER KLUG Associated Press Writer 05/17/2002 

 A Western River Expeditions boat catches air as it heads into the biggest rapids on the Colorado River in this April 25, 1997 file photo in the Grand Canyon, Ariz. While a four-year drought hasn't dented the popularity of rafting trips through the canyon, the Upper Salt River is running so slow that the rafting season has been canceled in the year 2002. Rafting outfitters say the Salt River has turned into more of a meandering creek and can't support the commercial season, which lasts from March to late May. (AP Photo/Arizona Daily Sun, Jake Bacon, File) 

PHOENIX -- A crippling four-year drought has barely dented the popularity of Grand Canyon rafting trips on the Colorado River, which the Glen Canyon Dam feeds with a steady, if lessening, supply of water.  But the Upper Salt River rafting trip, considered by some outfitters to be one of the best in the western United States, has slowed to a trickle, wiping out this year's season.  

The Salt River, which ran at more than 1,000 cubic feet per second during last year's season, was crawling along at about 100 cfs near a popular raft launch point on Monday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's Web page.  A raft needs at least 600 cfs for a decent run, said Joe Greiner, owner of Wilderness Aware Rafting, a Colorado company that runs Upper Salt River rafting tours from Globe, Ariz., during the March through May season.  "It's running at the speed of a creek, not a river," he said. "You can't make a boat go when it's that slow. Your path gets blocked by rocks all over the place."  Greiner said his company had planned to guide about 2,000 people down the Salt River this season, about 10 percent of his total business. The drought has forced him to cancel all reservations and ask customers to start planning for next year.  

Greiner and other Salt River outfitters blamed the low snowpack in the nearby White Mountains for the river's condition.  Meanwhile, slow waters this year on the Colorado River have done nothing to scare away the usual crowds, said Mark Grisham, executive director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association in Flagstaff.  Outfitters this season still expect to draw the 19,000 customers who normally book trips with the Grand Canyon's 16 rafting companies, he said.  "The demand for rafting in the Grand Canyon is so high that on an industry basis every seat is going to be full," Grisham said. "Generally speaking, Colorado rafting is not impacted by water level or drought."  Water from Lake Powell, which feeds the Colorado River, is  regulated by the Glen Canyon Dam. Even without droughts, the river's speed normally fluctuates, depending on the season and the amount of water entering the lake. But this year, the drought has lowered the lake's water about 40 feet below its high level.

 On Monday, the Colorado River's speed was clocked at 10,700 cfs through the Grand Canyon, according to the USGS Web page.  "We're seeing about two-thirds the water we normally have," said Rob Elliott, president of Arizona Raft Adventures in Flagstaff. "But this is becoming normal for us. We're more than ready for it."  River runners have adapted to the new river conditions, learning to navigate the low water without banging propellers and engines on rocks, Elliott said.

  In 2000, about six boats from the various rafting companies got stuck in the river. "We'd have to take people from boat to shore in helicopters," he said.  There have been no stuck boats this year, Elliott said.  Greiner said he expects the Salt to rebound.  "The Upper Salt River is probably one of the nicest rafting trips in the western United States," he said. "If you look at the last 50 years of (river) flows, there have been dry years like this, and then the next year it's fine. This year just wasn't commercially feasible."


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