So maybe total precipitation in the Cache la Poudre River basin was only 17 percent of average for the month of March. Maybe snowpack was only 55 percent of average at the beginning of April. Maybe the Natural Resources Conservation Service is predicting summer streamflow on the river will be only 53 percent of average. And maybe water managers say current conditions look just like the drought of 2002-03 all over again.
Local rafting companies anticipate a good start to the river season on May 15. They say the abnormally high snowpack, timely precipitation, and long slow runoff last spring left reservoirs with plenty of water that will soon be moving downstream.
“I say thanks to all the farmers who need the water,” said Bob Klein, manager of A Wanderlust Adventures based at Vern’s Restaurant on Highway 287 at the entrance to Rist Canyon. “We just ride on it.”
The dry conditions this year prompted the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District to set the highest April quota since 1977 for Colorado-Big Thompson water shareholders. Stephen Smith, operations manager of North Poudre Irrigation Co., based in Wellington, said his company’s first water release was set for April 23.
“The farmers need the early water to get crops in the ground,” he said. “We will be releasing more during the season as needed, but we have to save enough for the harvest. The reservoirs are pretty full but we have to balance what we have with what’s needed. It looks like this will be a pretty tight water year.”
Reports of low snowpack haven’t affected advance reservations for summer raft trips on the Poudre, although the guides recommend locals book trips early in the season to avoid the crowds as well as take advantage of the current water levels. The river naturally peaks in June, then tapers off toward the end of the season in August or September. But there’s no way to exactly predict what the water will be like from week to week.
“There are so many factors that go into the conditions on the river,” said Randy Rothwell, general manager of A-1 Wildwater, located on the northwest corner of the intersection of Highway 287 and North Shields Street. “There are eight different diversions for storage on the Poudre, for example, and how the snowpack melts is as important as how much there is.”
While 2002 stands out as one of the lowest water years for most Poudre rafting guides, and 2011 as one of the highest, extremes aren’t necessary for a good time on the river, they all agreed.
“It depends on the experience you’re looking for,” said Ben Costello, Director of Fun for Mountain Whitewater Descents on Highway 287 west of Shields. “There’s a faster pace with high water, but that gives you less time to look at the beautiful scenery in Poudre Canyon.”