ASPEN - Last year's drought delivered a blow to the Colorado rafting industry, which recently reported a 17 percent drop in overall user days last season, but Aspen-area outfitters say they managed to make do with the lower water, though it's not something they'd like to repeat this year.
The Colorado River Outfitters Association held its annual convention earlier this month in Grand Junction. The organization, which represents about 50 licensed rafting outfitters across the state, said last year's drop in user days - defined as a paying guest on a river for any part of a day - was the second-highest decline since the association began tracking the numbers in 1990. The biggest drop came in 2002, a season marked by drought and fire in Colorado; it also came in the wake of the 9/11 economic downturn. That year, user days were down 40 percent, according to the association.
The association's annual report indicates that user days on the upper Roaring Fork River, a stretch that includes Slaughterhouse Falls below Aspen, plummeted from 6,672 in 2011 (a bountiful year for spring snowpack and river flows) to 112 last year. The decline on the Roaring Fork below Basalt was somewhat less pronounced - user days dropped from 912 in 2011 to 736 last year, the report said.
The upper Colorado River, including the popular stretch through Glenwood Canyon that includes the Shoshone rapid, actually saw an uptick in user days - from 32,842 in 2011 to 39,645 last year. Senior water calls on the Colorado kept the river flowing at decent levels throughout the season and attracted boaters who were displaced from other rivers.
"It was running at a fun level all summer," said Tim McMahon, co-owner of Snowmass Village-based Blazing Adventures.
Both the Colorado and Green rivers came through the 2012 season "unscathed," according to the outfitters group.
The Arkansas River, on the far side of Independence Pass from Aspen and a destination for some local rafting companies, was also down in boater traffic last season, with 169,486 user days, compared with 208,329 in 2011.
Aspen Whitewater Rafting, which has permits to run trips on the Roaring Fork, the Colorado and the Arkansas, responded to last season's lackluster runoff the same way others did - it improvised.
Owner Jim Ingram said the company was only able to run the fabled Slaughterhouse Falls with its boats for a week or two last season but had trips on the Arkansas until August on and the middle Roaring Fork until Labor Day weekend. Families that normally might be put off by a white-knuckle whitewater experience were enticed by the tamer rivers, he said. Fans of running the Roaring Fork in duckies (inflatable kayaks) - an option when river levels drop - had plenty of opportunity to do so last year.
Aspen Whitewater even ran a trip through the Numbers, a legendary Arkansas River rapid, with duckies in September, Ingram said.
"If it's a tough water year, you've got to be creative. I didn't get one guest complaint," he said.
Scotty Gibsone's Kiwi Adventure Ko. was able to get its smaller, three-man rafts over Slaughterhouse until the end of June, though mid-August is typical, and then offered tubing to customers on the upper Fork. Kiwi didn't see an appreciable drop in customer numbers but charged less for tubing, which hit the bottom line, Gibsone said.
Last season's experience was different, but that doesn't mean it wasn't fun, he said.
"Everybody seemed to embrace it because everyone wanted to do something," Gibsone said.
The rafting business was down for Blazing Adventures but not by the 17 percent average experienced statewide, according to McMahon. And participation in the company's land-based offerings, including Jeep tours and biking, was up, he said.
Across Colorado, user days for rafting outfitters that are members of the statewide group numbered 411,100 last year. That translated to an economic impact of $127.5 million, down 15.7 percent from 2011, the Colorado River Outfitters Association calculated. The sum reflects user days, their direct expenditures on a rafting trip and the number of times those dollars are spent in a local area (2.56 times, according to the Colorado Tourism Board). Direct expenditures last year totaled $49.8 million, the outfitters association said.
The Arkansas River was the biggest economic generator in the Colorado rafting industry, with $20.5 million in direct expenditures last year, the association reported. The Colorado River in Glenwood was next, at $7.7 million. The Roaring Fork, including trips on all stretches of the river, generated about $102,000 in direct spending last year.
Outfitters can only wait and see what this season brings.
The snowpack on Independence Pass, at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork above Aspen, stood at 61 percent of average Friday. If spring snows boost that total to 75 to 80 percent, Ingram said he'll be pleased, but he'll take what nature delivers.
"If you have a rafting company, you have great water years, and you have bad water years," he said.
"While rafting doesn't seem that far away, there's still a lot of snow season left," McMahon said.