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Drought conditions hit Rocky Mountain tourism

Megan Verlee Jun 26, 2012

Drought conditions hit Rocky Mountain tourism

Megan Verlee Jun 26, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Denver, Colo., was due for its fifth straight day of 100 degree weather today. That’s not doing anything to help control the wildfires that’ve broken out across parts of the state. Tourist towns are suffering. Even the Pikes Peak railway has been shut down. The fires are a direct result of a lousy snowfall in the Rockies this winter. And the lack of Rocky Mountain water is hurting companies that rely on Colorado’s rivers this summer.

From Colorado Public Radio, Megan Verlee reports.

Megan Verlee: Whitewater guides manhandle big rubber rafts off a trailer and down to the edge of the Arkansas River in central Colorado. Behind them, 18 tourists pile out of an old school bus and head for the water. As the paddlers separate into boats, the guides start the usual getting-to-know-you routine.

Rafting guide: Where have you guys all been rafting?

Tourist: Well, we did this two years ago and the water was like ridiculous.

Rafting guide: Oh nice. It was quite a bit higher a couple years ago. We didn’t have much snow last winter.

“Not much snow” is an understatement — Colorado’s snow pack is just 2 percent of normal right now. The tiny amount of snow left is melting fast. So there’s no water left to feed the rivers.

Bill Dvorak: It’s going to be an interesting year for us.

Rafting company owner Bill Dvorak is a former head of Colorado’s River Outfitters Association. He says floating on shallow water requires smaller, lighter boats that carry fewer people. And that cuts into his profits.

Dvorak: Instead of maybe putting six or seven people in a boat, we might be putting four or five. And, you know, we pay the guides the same and the shuttles the same, and a lot of the overhead is the same.

During Colorado’s last major drought, 10 years ago, Dvorak had to sell his vacation cabin to keep his business afloat. That experience was a painful lesson.

Dvorak: And so this year I’ve definitely hired a smaller staff, just thinking that I’d rather keep the people I have really busy rather than have too many people and not keep ’em busy.

Whitewater rafting is big business in Colorado — the industry estimates its economic impact last year was around $155 million. Tourist towns on the state’s largest rivers will get some help. Later this summer Colorado officials will start releasing water from upstream reservoirs.

Jahvea Vidakovich owns Buffalo Joe’s Whitewater Rafting in Buena Vista. He says the extra water will let him run trips into August.

Jahvea Vidakovich: A lot of communities in the area, really do rely on the rafters not only to raft but to come in and spend their money in the towns.

The drought’s actually been good for some tourism operators, especially fly fishermen. Lower, warmer water means more places for the brown trout to hang out and more people willing to wade in to try to catch them.

Greg Felt: Whoa, geeze, that was a big hit.

Greg Felt stands knee-deep in the Arkansas, casting his long line out over the rippling water. Felt co-owns a couple of angler supply stores and runs guided fishing trips along the river.

Felt: We’re full speed ahead. We never really took a break for high water, like we tend to in a normal year.

Word of the great fishing has already gotten out. Felt says this was his best spring in five years, and his June bookings are up about 20 percent. And while he’s sympathetic to the rafters, their loss could be his gain.

Felt: If it remains dry, if this drought persists, and flows are low, then the numbers do drop for rafting. And one of the alternative activities that people will probably consider is fishing.

Felt is having a good season now, but what he and all the tourism companies in the Rocky Mountains are really worried about is fire. With trees tinder-dry from the drought, one big blaze up here could drive off business for a long time.

In Buena Vista, Colo., I’m Megan Verlee for Marketplace.

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