Text Size

Site Search

Public Lands

HW Winter2018 FINAL2cover

Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

connectingdropslogo4.1Bringing you the reporting you crave over the radio airways with extras and archives on our website. Visit the audio archives or listen to the latest story on the connection between Colorado's forests, watersheds, and forest fires:

IMG 20180402 101801web

Water Education Colorado

Navigating the Adventure

By Peter Roessman

The Arkansas River is unique among Colorado's storied waterways, a recreational asset that has no peer. More people make pilgrimages to touch the Arkansas than any other water body in the state.

How this developed is a tale of ecology and technology, plan and fate, human nature and luck, with a cast of characters who made it all happen by working together.

Upper vs. Lower
The Arkansas River has two very distinct regions. The Upper Arkansas is a mountain river coursing approximately 150 miles from its headwaters near Leadville to where it slows at Pueblo Reservoir. Below the reservoir, the Arkansas becomes a plains river that works to satisfy municipal and agricultural needs. The two regions play vastly different roles. The Upper Arkansas provides the greatest concentration of recreational activities, while the Lower Arkansas offers opportunities that complement the upper half.

The Upper Arkansas always had the genes to be an outstanding recreation river. Runoff from three different mountain ranges, the Sawatch, Mosquito and Sangre de Cristo, feeds the river. The headwaters fall from 10,430 feet above sea level at Leadville to 7,080 near Salida, 53 highway miles away. Below Salida, the river wends in and out of canyons until it reaches the plains at Cañon City. By then, it's dropped another 1,748 feet.

The Upper Arkansas has some of the best and most famous stretches of whitewater in the nation. No major in-channel reservoir arrests its flow until the river reaches Pueblo Reservoir. Two transmountain diversions augment the river and two headwaters reservoirs on major tributaries maintain its flow. Diversions for the first 150 miles are modest by Colorado's standards.

Wager launches an industry
Like much of Colorado, the Upper Arkansas River Valley has had its share of boom and bust cycles. Mining arrived with a profitable flourish only to leave behind bewildered communities, ghost towns and environmental damage. The railroad that ran through the valley also departed, leaving rusting tracks that run beside the river for much of its course. Smelters, sawmills and other extractive industries have come and gone. Farms and ranches are the longest enduring economic base left. Recreation is the newest boom.

The birth of recreation on the Arkansas River, in a modern sense, begins as many great legends do—with a bet. In 1949 boating any distance on the wild Arkansas was an unknown quantity. A preponderance of rapids and high virgin flows made many a wise man stay away from navigating the river in the wooden or metal canoes of the day, until two men challenged each other to a race to see who could paddle the fastest from Salida to Cañon City. Belying the foolhardiness of the adventure, the deal was sealed over nothing more intoxicating than coffee.

Word got out about the friendly wager. Not only did others join the race, but Salida agreed to sponsor the event. The first downriver race on the Upper Arkansas River, soon to be known as FIBArk, an acronym for First in Boating the Arkansas, was an immediate sensation. The Salida Daily Mail-Record reported the banks of the Arkansas were lined with an estimated 10,000 spectators; bumper-to-bumper traffic jammed U.S. Highway 50.

Neither the river nor the boaters let them down. Heavy rains boosted flows to the highest level in five years. Of the six craft that left Salida to travel 56 miles downstream to Cañon City, only one survived. The four others either smashed or flipped. The fifth was abandoned heading into heavy water.

Two Swiss men, Robert Ris of Basel and Max Roemer of Biel, crossed the line after 7 hours, 38 minutes and 12.7 seconds on a river labeled the ‘meanest, most vicious river in the world.’ Neither of the men who conceived the initial challenge even started the race. But that day set in motion a change in the Upper Arkansas.

In 2008, FIBArk celebrates its 60th anniversary. The event has evolved from a single downriver boat race to a community-wide cultural event. The classic race was eventually shortened to 26 miles, ending in Cotopaxi, after the original course was termed attempted suicide. Slalom races, pro raft races, freestyle competition, boater-x races, multiple foot races, a parade, concerts, skate park events and even a contest for the craziest river dog were added over years.

FIBArk's growth mirrored the changes in boating, as well as the community's evolution. FIBArk remains the nation's pre-eminent whitewater event, attracting 20,000 people from around Colorado, the nation and the world to Salida each June for the four-day event.

FIBArk isn't just about boating, it ‘represents the community,’ says Jamie Keating Klco, FIBArk's administrator, ‘and we try to incorporate the entire community.’ FIBArk involves so much of the community that by the time the event rolls around, ‘there's no one left to volunteer.’

Water play
While FIBArk got the ball rolling and put the Upper Arkansas on the world map of rivers to run, periodic leaps in technology opened up it to new recreationalists. As equipment changed, so did the number of users on the Arkansas River.

In the 1960s, the advent of more durable fiberglass kayaks and canoes permitted paddlers to run rougher sections of water than wooden craft and cloth-covered European folding boats. The 1970s witnessed the birth of commercial rafting on the Arkansas as guides in rubber rafts opened up the river to anyone who wanted to go along for the ride.

In the 1980s lightweight plastic kayaks hit the market, providing inexpensive and nearly indestructible boats to an even broader audience of river enthusiasts, and self-bailing rafts made it possible to run river sections, including the infamous Numbers, that would have previously swamped a raft.

Since then, an armada of watercraft brought in whole new audiences. Inflatable kayaks, or duckies, and the simple inner tube allowed neophytes to play in the river's calmer stretches. Fisherman are leaving their waders behind and using boats, catarafts and float tubes to experience flyfishing. Boogie boards, body boards, sledges and other individual flotation devices are making minor forays into river culture, too.

But the technological leap that is causing a huge reinvention in paddling sports is the recent introduction of the stubby playboats. These shorter, more acrobatic and nimble kayaks are perfect for playing on standing waves, holes and other hydraulic structures. With this new style, a boater can paddle for an hour and get in and out of the river at the same place. This innovation is key to understanding the explosion in urban whitewater parks, such as Salida's Riverside Park, Buena Vista's whitewater park and many others.

Paddling no longer requires vehicle shuttles, hence the new term park and play. It is now a sport that can be enjoyed on a lunch break. The excitement of playboating is enough to bring an entirely new crowd into the sport.

Boating in all forms has profoundly changed the region's culture. It's a naturally social sport that for logistical and safety reasons normally requires a group. FIBArk board member Ed Loeffel recalls boating, ‘gave you an incentive to broaden your circle…it broadened the community.’ Loeffel came to the valley 30 years ago because of FIBArk and now is practicing radiologist in Salida.

In Buena Vista and Salida, kayaks and rafts are ubiquitous. They're in the river, on tops of cars, in back yards and on front porches. Buses and vans shuttling passengers and rafts are an inescapable summer sight. As the river rises so does the population. Raft guides converge from all over the world to work at the commercial companies. When the season ends, guides either head to ski resorts for the winter, return to college or move on to other rafting hotspots in West Virginia, New Zealand, Costa Rica or Chile.

Show me the money
Boating's popularity on the Upper Arkansas now makes it the most commercially rafted stretch of river in the nation, some argue even in the world. In a single day, as many as 460 commercial crafts launch into the Arkansas. The river itself accounts for just under half of all paddling activity in the entire state. The economic impact of commercial boating on the Arkansas is nearly $65 million, an enormous sum considering that it is almost completely derived from just two counties—Chaffee and Fremont. Commercial use on the Arkansas has more than twice the market share of the entire mainstem of the Colorado River, its next closest competitor.
By 2001, more than a quarter million commercial user days were logged on the Arkansas. Then came 9/11. Bill Dvorak, a commercial guide with 30 years of experience on the river, recalls that on 9/11 bookings for the rest of the year just vanished. The 2002 drought followed. A widely broadcast statement—that all of Colorado was on fire—threw business into a tailspin. It plummeted by 45 percent from the previous year. Though numbers rebounded in 2003 and continue to increase, through 2006 commercial trips have yet to exceed the record 2001 season.

The end of the Wild West

As with all water resources in Colorado, there simply isn't enough river to meet the demand. By the 1980s, anyone with a raft and paddle hawked himself as a river guide. Under pressure from the area's rafting industry, the Colorado legislature in 1984 passed the River Outfitting Licensing Bill requiring trained guides, along with first aid kits, life vests and spare paddles, on every raft. Guide companies had to be licensed and have liability insurance. The law even stipulated that guides must not operate a raft under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The rules immediately cut the number of rafting enterprises to about 150, down from more than 400.

Pushing for state licensing of commercial rafting was the first in a long string of river management actions that made commercial outfitters as successful at diplomacy as they are in business. With a strong impetus from the area's boating community, the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area was created in 1989, combining the resources of the Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Department of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. Blending the BLM's resource management skills and State Park's expertise in working with the public, AHRA's mission encompassed managing lands, and facilities, as well as permits, river use guidelines and other protective measures.

The AHRA, innovative from its inception, continues to refine its operations by working with a 14-member citizens task force chosen by seven different groups, including land owners, private boaters, commercial guides, anglers, environmental groups, water users and local governments. The task force identifies problems and develops solutions to emerging issues that confront the river, keeping the recreation area ahead of potential conflicts.

The AHRA has been instrumental in increasing the sustainability of park resources, keeping the peace on the river and providing education and etiquette training for the different users of the recreation area. As has been the history of recreation in the area, times are changing. Camping increased along the river. RV use is up, especially among retirees. More families spend time by the river, looking for activities for adults and children. The demographic additions are on top of the incremental growth of traditional users.

A new wrinkle to the AHRA is the 20,000-acre Brown's Canyon Wilderness Study Area which may lead to the creation of the first piece of Colorado wilderness outside of a high alpine environment. The canyon is one of the few stretches of the Upper Arkansas without a paved road and it attracts a wide array of wildlife.

The bedrock to maintain the resource's viability is the partnership of federal and state resources along with the cooperation of regional water providers. Assistant Park Manager John Geerdes points out, ‘It's a pretty unique situation…it's very good not only for the resource but for the local communities.’

The Voluntary Flow Management Program
In 1990, another cooperative process yielded the Voluntary Flow Management Program. When a sharp drawdown of Twin Lakes Reservoir was announced, rafters asked that it be timed to coincide with rafting season rather than releasing the water in the winter. The VFMP takes advantage of public benefits written into the authorization for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project: recreation and development of fish and wildlife resources. As non-reimbursable project benefits of the Fry-Ark Project, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and its project partner, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, are permitted to manage their flow regime to benefit recreation and fisheries. The primary objective is to maintain year-round minimum flows for the fishery.

The VFMP works on a July1—June 30 program year. From July 1 through Aug. 15, flows in the Arkansas, measured from the Wellsville gage downstream of Salida, are augmented to maintain a flow of 700 cubic feet per second by releasing project water from Twin Lakes. The volume released plateaus at 10,000 acre feet, with any additional water needed to sustain flows coming from other agreements and stipulations.

The commercial boating community purchases replacement water to keep the river whole by compensating SECWD for the 10 percent transit loss. Since 90 percent of Southeastern's consumptive use is downstream of Pueblo Reservoir, the flow management program does not affect the project's yield. Moving water from Twin Lake to Pueblo Reservoir is part of the district's normal operations. The flow program only affects when water is moved.
Beginning Aug. 15, flows decrease to the year round minimum flow of 250 cfs. From Oct. 15 through Nov. 15, a spawning flow rate is instituted. It may vary from year to year, from 300 to 700 cfs. A period of minimum incubation flows follow, ranging from 250 to 400 cfs based on what the river flow was during spawning.

As the runoff begins, Reclamation adjusts flows to keep them within a range of 250- 400 cfs from April 1 through May 15 as trout fry emerge. After May 15, the river's peak rules until the end of the flow year.

Once the 10,000 acre-foot point is reached and water is still needed, yet another innovative and unexpected arrangement kicks in. Figuring that in three out of every 10 years additional augmentation flows will be needed, State Parks will pay up to $100,000 to purchase additional Twin Lakes water. To reimburse State Parks, the commercial outfitting community imposed a 0.25 percent surcharge on its gross receipts, producing around $30,000 annually. If the extra water is needed in only three out of 10 years, the expense to State Parks and the contribution from the outfitters should balance out. What has happened since 2001 is that extra water has been needed in every year except 2007. Complicating matters further is the increasing cost of water. The extra $100,000 could purchase 2- to 3,000 acre feet of additional flow augmentation in some years, but in 2006 it bought only 600 acre feet.

Since none of the purchased flow augmentation water is consumed, the water can be resold to recoup some of the original cost after it reaches Pueblo Reservoir. It also can go downriver to John Martin Reservoir to maintain storage for recreation.

Another layer of complexity in administering recreation flows: Aurora's ability to exchange 20,000 acre feet of water from former agricultural use near Rocky Ford upstream to Twin Lakes Reservoir. From Twin Lakes, Aurora sends water back down valley through a pipelinethat parallels the Arkansas River to the Otero Pump Station where water is pumped uphill 700 feet to drop by gravity into the South Platte River Basin. This exchange potential, which puts water into a pipeline instead of the river, could significantly alter the web of agreements that maintain recreation flows.

To remedy the possible conflict, an agreement was negotiated in 2000 with Aurora for a flow indexing program. Aurora's exchange potential is limited by the Upper Arkansas' flow. When flows at the Wellsville Gage exceed 3,000 cfs, Aurora can take up to 500 cfs. As flows decrease to between 1,500 and 2,000 cfs, Aurora lowers its exchange to 175 cfs. From 1,500 to 1,000, Aurora's exchange drops to 125 cfs, and decreases again between 500 and 1,000 cfs, to 75 cfs. If the river flows fall to 250 to 500 cfs, Aurora's exchange goes down to 50.

Other restrictions also bind Aurora. The city will not exchange any water between July 1 — August 15, leaving a window from May through June and Aug. 15 through September to move all of its water. The program, Aurora's Arkansas and Colorado River Basin Manager Gerry Knapp admits, ‘makes it more difficult’ to make the exchanges. To ensure full yield, Aurora employs additional contract exchanges with other entities.

A movie, a parasite, a plant and a plan
Sometimes lost in all the paddling is that the Arkansas is an outstanding fishery that suffered from misunderstanding and misrepresentation. The Arkansas never had the storied traditions of some of Colorado's other rivers. The Upper Arkansas was known as a small fish trout river for years, partly due to its fast flows. And the perception that the river was overrun with paddlers discouraged impressionable anglers from wading into the Upper Ark.

A convergence of unrelated events—a movie, a parasite, a water treatment plant, a management plan and drought—altered the trajectory of fishing and dispelled misconceptions.

Whirling disease, a parasitic condition especially lethal to young rainbow trout, stole into Colorado's fishing scene in the mid-1980s. The Upper Arkansas has been a brown trout-dominated stream since the introduction of non-native species. It fared better because of the brown's resistance to whirling disease. While other fisheries' trout populations nosedived, whirling disease cemented the dominance of browns that now comprise about 90 percent of Upper Ark's fish population.

Countering the image of paddling sports' interference with the fishing has been a difficult problem to overcome. The two have always segregated. Paddlers seek out whitewater while trout fishermen look for quieter, slower flows. Boaters are on the river in the heat of the day while fishermen have better luck in the cool morning and evening hours.

The AHRA's establishment went a step further, designating some sections of the river specifically for fishing, leaving anglers alone in prime fishing habitat. With the AHRA's management of commercial outfitting, most boating use is confined to popular stretches of whitewater. The rest of the river is open. The Upper Arkansas, as ArkAnglers partner Greg Felt notes, ‘is a big beast.’ At nearly 150 river miles, fishermen have an awful lot of river to explore.

In 1992, California Gulch and Hollywood affected fishing on the Upper Arkansas. That February, operators flipped a switch at a water treatment plant in California Gulch, near Leadville, to clean up contaminated water released from the Yak Tunnel. The tunnel was a dewatering system for a series of hard-rock mines that for a century annually discharged about 210 tons of heavy metals into the Arkansas River. The drastic reduction in contaminants was apparent almost immediately downstream of Leadville. The health of the aquatic food chain rebounded dramatically. Fish are bigger, healthier and live to up to seven years. Before, fish survived to less than half that in the upper reaches.

A no less revolutionary event occurred when Robert Redford's ‘A River Runs through It’ was released in October, romanticizing fly fishing and spawning a continuing love affair with the sport.

The lure of flyfishing has smitten the Baby Boomers in particular. They bring their disposable income and active lifestyle to the Upper Arkansas, creating a demand for retirement and second homes close to quality flyfishing.

The 2002 drought lowered river elevations and increased water temperatures around the state. In other rivers fish died or suffered. In the Upper Arkansas the brown trout boomed. As a species browns are tolerant of a wider range of temperatures than other trout. They took advantage of lower and slower flows to feed more efficiently, spend less energy fighting currents and grow in size and number.

The higher flows during the Arkansas River's boating season discourage the growth of monster trout. But, the wild brown trout population in the Upper Ark is in the range of 4,000-5,000 fish per mile, an ‘extremely high’ density, says the Colorado Division of Wildlife's Michael Seraphin.

The late spring Mother's Day caddis and blue wing olive mayfly hatches that occur as early as mid-April through mid-May sets the river alight with feeding fish. The hatch is aided by the flow management regime that reduces the chance of high flows blowing out the hatch. The hatch fills fishes' bellies as area fishermen pack hotels. It's normally a slow time, between the end of ski season and the beginning of rafting.

Fishing is its own economic force on the Upper Arkansas, to the tune of more than $17 million in direct expenditures in the three headwaters counties. And after Aug. 15th, anglers return to the river again.

At the Upper Arkansas' terminus sits Pueblo Reservoir, the first major in-channel reservoir on the river and one of the most popular state parks in Colorado. Covering more than 4,500 surface acres, 1.5 million visitors generate upwards of $16 million in associated revenues each year. A cool water reservoir, Pueblo offers anglers in the basin sport fish such as walleye, wiper, catfish and bass. The reservoir is also popular for boaters and jet skiers.

Pueblo's Whitewater Park:
the Metropolitan Recreation Revolution

Downstream of the reservoir, the Arkansas River was disregarded for paddling. The slower, less pristine water entering the city held little attraction. But in 1998, the Army Corps of Engineers was looking at fish habitat improvement projects on the river through Pueblo. A channelized and confined stretch was written off because it would provide little opportunity. High water temperatures and two low-head dams on either end impeded fish passage.

So Bob Walker, owner of Pueblo's The Edge kayak shop, asked, ‘Can I have it?’ What came from the desire to create some paddling opportunities in Pueblo evolved into a series of drop structures suitable for boaters. They would also act as a 2,000-foot fish ladder in what is still quality trout habitat. Three years ago the Pueblo Whitewater Park opened, featuring eight drop structures of varying difficulty over a ½-mile stretch. Each of the drops is known by the portion of what is billed as the world's largest mural, painted on the side of the channel's concrete embankments.

The park is becoming an essential stop for boaters on the way to the Upper Arkansas. It is the perfect warm-up spot before they hit bigger water upstream.

‘I just marvel at how many people come from Boulder, New Mexico and Grand Junction,’ says Walker.

Flows through the park can range from a calm 250 cfs in the winter to more than 1,500 cfs, which Walker concedes, ‘can get hairy.’

The portion of the river occupied by the park had been a dumping ground for trash and a squatting area for the homeless. The river enhancements are part of Pueblo's riverfront improvement plan meant to revive the river on its way through town. Now a flotilla of kayaks, rafts, knee boards, boogie boards and even the occasional surfboard plays in the waves. Walker says there is enough room for non-conventional river users to use the park. ‘Pretty much anything is welcome…if you play by the rules.’

East to Kansas
As it crosses Colorado's eastern plains, recreation on the Arkansas changes from whitewater to flat water. Access to the river becomes more limited because of private ownership of land adjacent to the river. Water quality decreases with more intensive human use and reuse, and the water warms up.

Gone are the large crowds of paddlers. Instead, there are powerboats, jet skis and flat water fishing craft on the prairie reservoirs. John Martin, located between Las Animas and Lamar, is the largest Colorado reservoir east of the

Continental Divide. It's closer to Kansas and Oklahoma than Denver and most of its users travel from the Front Range for a different type of recreation experience. Out-of-state visitors boat and fish on this cool water fishery where warm water species—bass, saugeye, walleye, catfish and crappie—can be caught along with trout.

On the plains, waterfowl and terrestrial hunting are important to the regional economy. The reservoirs and farm ponds attract ducks and geese, and the concentration of larger game animals increases with proximity to the river.

The Arkansas River Valley attracts another largely unnoticed recreation enthusiast: the birder. Situated squarely in the important Atlantic flyway migration route for birds, the Arkansas River Valley serves as a stopover and habitat for a wide variety of permanent and migratory birds. More than 7 million birders a year visit Colorado and they flock to rural areas in need of tourist dollars.

Recreation on the Arkansas continues to evolve in surprising and lucrative ways. It is blessed with success, but the river has not gotten by on its natural talent alone. It took hard work, like the recreation industry that paid its own way and bought a share of the water it uses. Hard work, like negotiating and comprising and regularly revisiting those compromises to reach a more perfect recreation future.

And it took luck. Luck like a crazy bet on a boat race, or someone in a laboratory seeing a new use for a material, or the federal government realizing the time had come to recognize the benefits of fish habitat and recreation.

But if history has taught any lessons about recreation, it is that out there in the future lies a new form that will again challenge the values, perceptions and use of the river in ways we haven't imagined. And it will again take the right people, the right circumstances, hard work and vision to thrive on the Arkansas River.

Social Media

Stay in touch and connect through:

FB-fLogo-Blue-broadcast-2 Twitter Logo White On Blue instagram    

Sign Up for our e-newsletter

learn more3learn more

 And view the latest issue of Headwaters Pulse, Water Education Colorado's monthly e-newsletter, here.


Click the icons below for videos about climate change, ranching and more; or audio from Water Education Colorado's Connecting the Drops radio series.

filmicon   headphonesicon

1750 Humboldt Street, Suite 200
Denver, CO 80218