Monday, May 16, 2011

Lack of Runoff This Year Cramps Rio Grande Rafting Style.

Mike Boren of New Wave Rafting in Embudo makes a point from his seat in the rear of a raft while taking a group of guide trainees down the Rio Grande in May, 2011.
White water thrill seekers will be lucky to see a high water rafting season this year due to below average snowpack and a lack of real runoff.

Complicating matters is the ongoing drought, low soil moisture conditions, warm, windy weather and a storm stingy La Nina pattern.

“It looks like it’ll be poor runoff season for rafting,” says Wayne Sleep of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Albuquerque which monitors snowpack and other water conditions.”The snowpack is melting but it’s just not making it to the streams.”

Sleep attributes the lack of runoff to dry soil conditions which absorbs a lot of runoff and warm windy weather with causes a lot of evaporation. There’s also very little in the way of snowpack, just 16-percent of average, within the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to augment what runoff exists in the Rio Grande, he says.

Snowcapped  mountains above Taos, New Mexico during a wet year.
That’s why even though snowpack in the mountains of southern Colorado which feeds the Rio Grande is at about 90-percent of average, runoff, as measured by stream flow in cubic-feet-per-second (CFS) at sites in northern New Mexico, is well below average, he says.

The Rio Grande at the Taos Junction Bridge upstream of Pilar is running at about 500 cfs, about half of what it should be for this time of year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s stream flow charts found at

Complicating the problem up north is a lack of lower elevation snowpack to augment the deeper snows found at higher elevation, says Craig Cotten, Division Engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources in Alamosa, Co.

Plus windblown dust is also helping snow melt more rapidly because dirty snow absorbs more sunlight, Cotten says.

“So we’re looking at about 75-percent of average runoff this year,” he added.

And as the Rio Grande flows through the agricultural areas of southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley it is heavily tapped for irrigation.

A San Luis Valley farm.
Under terms of an interstate compact governing use of the Rio Grande more water heads south during wetter years and much less when times are tough, Cotten says.

And that’s why longtime rafting guide, Michael Boren, 55, of Santa Fe is praying for rain up in the San Luis Valley.

The more rain they get, the wetter their fields will be and the more likely they will be to let the water in the Rio Grande pass on through, Boren says.

Veteran rafting guide Mike Boren of Santa Fe.
Boren, a chimney sweep during the winter, a rafting guide during the summer and a former Army Airborne Ranger, says he’d be surprised to even see a season on the Rio Grande’s wildly thrilling Taos Box this year.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” he says.

The box which runs 16 miles from the John Dunn Bridge down to the Taos Junction Bridge above Pilar requires about 750 cfs and above for a really good ride and is a favorite of die hard, whitewater, enthusiasts, Boren says.

But the box can still be a fun run at flows as low as 500 cfs, anything below that and it becomes too rocky to navigate, Boren says.

Cotten of the Colorado Division of Water Resources says whitewater enthusiasts should check the divisions’ website and monitor stream flows for the Conejos River at Mogote and the Rio Grande at Del Norte to get an idea of future flows in New Mexico.

As flows climb at these sites one can expect them to come up in two or three days further downstream, Cotten says.

But even if the Taos Box doesn’t see high water this year, the five mile Racecourse section between Pilar and the Taos/Rio Arriba County line will still provide plenty of whitewater thrills even during a mild runoff season, says Steve Miller, president of the New Mexico River Outfitters Association and owner of New Wave Rafting in Embudo.

Funyaks and rafts float the lower section of the Rio Grande in early spring of 2009. 
Miller says rafting companies have over the years adapted to provide highly entertaining trips even at lower flows by using smaller rafts and adding funyaks, inflatable kayaks, for customers to use on the lower section of the river.

And besides many families with kids and older folks aren’t necessarily looking for a hair raising ride like the white knuckle trip the Taos Box provides, he added.

That’s why trips like those that meander through the Orilla Verde recreation Area between the Taos Junction Bridge and Pilar are so popular.

They provide a gentle, relaxing trip downstream during which passengers can enjoy the scenery at a leisurely pace, Miller says.

The Rio Chama should still provide rafters good, weekend, action as water releases from dams on that river are timed to flow downstream on the weekends. The city of Albuquerque announced this week it too would take delivery of its water stored in upstream reservoirs on weekends to accommodate river rafters on the Chama.

So even if the runoff season is mild this year the mighty Rio Grande and scenic Chama should still be flowing and providing visitors plenty of wet and wild fun throughout the summer.
A little white water can be found even on the lower stretch of the Rio Grande during spring runoff.
If You Go: From Santa Re take US 84/285 north to Espanola and then follow Riverside Drive through town. Stay on State Road 68 north towards Taos until reaching Pilar and the Bureau of Land Management’s Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center. A list of commercial river rafting companies can be found on the BLM’s website at

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