One thing that frightens river runners more than boils, or bus-size holes, or house-size rollers, or the roar of a No. 10 rapid dead ahead, is talk about a drought. They'd sooner have people talk about too much water than not enough.
Consensus among boatmen is that water level actually makes little difference in a river experience, and that low-water levels - and this runs against the current of most thinking - are sometimes better.Only once to anyone's recollection has one of Utah's major rivers gone dry. Back in 1934, the San Juan River stopped flowing for about a week.
There have been, of course, low water years. In 1977, Utah's rivers ran very low, and again in 1981 flows were down.
The frightening part of low-water talk is that when people hear drought, they visualize dry river beds . . . "and they cancel trips, or change plans, or delay making a planned river trip," said one Utah outfitter.
It's a fact that Utah's rivers are running with less water this year.
"But they're not that low," said Myke Hughes, an owner in Adrift Adventures. "What most companies do is simply adjust the size of their boats so it's still a good ride. It's still an exciting trip."
According to Dave Westnedge, a hydrologist in the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, Utah's rivers are running between 30 and 60 percent below normal.
The Colorado River through Westwater, a popular two-day trip in an area near the Utah-Colorado border, is running at 8,000 cubic feet per second, where normally it would be running between 10,000 and 12,000 cfs.
This is one stretch of river, offered Dee Holladay of Holiday River Expeditions, "that is better in low water. The way the rapids are, they're just more exciting when the river's lower. When the river's higher, the rapids are washed out."
Cataract, probably the state's most popular stretch of runable river (it feeds into Lake Powell near Hite), is running at 15,000 cfs, where normally it would be running at 20,000 to 25,000 cfs. Cataract peaked this year around 30,000. In very high years, it can run more than 100,000 cfs.
The San Juan, near the southern border of the state, is currently running about 1,700 cfs, where in better years it would be running around 2,000 cfs. Because of water flows in the San Juan, which also flows into Lake Powell, commercial trips are run only during the months of May and June.
Running the San Juan through the end of the river-running season, said Holladay, "just shows that things are actually pretty good. The rivers aren't as low as what people might think.
"In Cataract, in fact, we're still running double rigs (two boats tied together). We hope to start running single boats soon," he added.
There are other advantages to running rivers when the water level is low.
For one, there are more exposed beach areas, making camping easier. Another is that the water is warmer. Also, some of the rapids are actually better. As noted, higher water sometimes fills in some of the rapids. Holladay remembered that back in 1977, "boatmen ran into a lot of
surprises. We found a few new rapids that were outstanding in low water."
Utah's rivers will continue to drop through July, hitting their lowest marks in August. In September, the river levels will begin to rise.
There is almost no chance water levels will get too low for boats to run this year.
River running is a popular activity in Utah. Latest figures, according to the Western River Guides Association, shows that river running makes up three percent of tourism revenues in the state.
Most outfitters report that early counts show river traffic is up this year.
Sections of rivers in Utah that are popular with river runners include the Lodore Canyon, a 44-mile trip on the Green below Flaming Gorge; Yampa River, a 71-mile trip that starts on the Yampa and feeds into the Green; the seven-mile stretch below Flaming Gorge Dam, popular with fishermen and boaters; Desolation/Gray, an 84-mile section of the Green that cuts through Utah's Book Cliff region; Westwater, an 18-mile section near the Utah/Colorado border; Cataract, a 117-mile trip on the Colorado River that starts near Moab and runs into Lake Powell; and the San Juan River, an 83-mile trip, ideal for families, that starts at Bluff and also empties into an arm of Lake Powell.