Runoff from a snowpack estimated at more than 600 percent above the median created dangerous conditions that contributed to thirteen deaths at water attractions across Colorado from June 1 through July 12. But last week's decision to lift tubing bans on Clear Creek through Golden and Boulder Creek after water levels began to moderate suggested that the worst was over.
Risks remain in plenty of places statewide, however. Monday, July 15, brought a fourteenth water-related fatality: Pueblo West's Federico Guzman, 38, drowned in the North Shore Marina at Lake Pueblo State Park. And as of noon yesterday, July 16, parts of eighteen rivers statewide were still running high.
According to Hattie Johnson, Southern Rockies stewardship director for American Whitewater, an organization that represents outdoor sports aficionados, river conservationists and more than a hundred local paddling club affiliates across the country, the higher-than-normal flows in these areas don't necessarily mean they should be considered off-limits. But extra caution should be exercised.
"Experienced users or even people who are just getting into the sport can use these areas," Johnson points out. "But if you're inexperienced, it might be a good idea to paddle something easier and wait for things to calm down instead of going on these stretches of river."
Johnson has a particular expertise in kayaking, and she points out that "people in the whitewater community are typically good at self-regulation. They understand their skill level, and they understand what they can handle with that skill level in mind. So when the water is above recommended levels, that doesn't mean they can't go there, but those who do are the ones with the skill set to do so."
Still, even kayakers who know their stuff can get into trouble when the waters run high. Note that on June 21, Petra Lachance, 65, died while kayaking in Blue Mesa Reservoir, near the Gunnison River.
In an effort to prevent such tragedies, American Whitewater maintains what Johnson describes as "a very robust inventory of whitewater rivers in Colorado that say how and where to access the river and what their water level is. The list is color-coded: Red is low, green is running and blue is high. And we encourage people to check the site, so they'll understand if some segments of the river are running high."
The following rivers and streams were coded blue as of the 16th. Each location is linked to pages with more information.
Cache La Poudre
Big South Campground to Tunnel Picnic Ground
Gore Canyon of the Colorado River
Hanging Lake Exit 125 (I-70) to Shoshone Power Plant Exit 123
Two Rivers to South Canyon
South Canyon to New Castle
Crystal, South Fork
Schofield Pass to Crystal
Road to Crystal to Beaver Lake
Vail to Eagle River (Lower Gore Creek)
Quarter mile above confluence with Eagle River
Upper Woody Creek Bridge to Lower Woody Creek Bridge
Lower Woody Creek Bridge to Rte. 82 Bridge
Basalt to Carbondale
Lake George to Cheesman Reservoir
Vallecito Creek, Southern Rockies
Among the best practices Johnson suggests is that beginners take courses to learn skills and even perform rescues if necessary. "The American Canoe Association has a database of courses, and we strongly encourage people to take them no matter what the conditions on the river are at a certain time. There is an inherent danger in moving water."
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In addition, she says, "you need to take what you learn from your skills course, or what you've learned from friends who have more experience, and use it when you're planning on getting on the river. A personal flotation device should be worn on the river at all times, whether you're tubing, swimming or whatever. And in most instances, you should have a helmet on. If you're on a whitewater kayak, a helmet is definitely necessary."
Likewise, whitewater enthusiasts "should be dressing for the cold water," she notes. "Cold water is one of the largest factors when it comes to being injured. Hypothermia is a big concern, so you should be prepared for the cold temperatures with wet suits and dry gear."
High water levels can create more issues. As Johnson points out, "it can bring obstacles down the river — logs or trees floating in the water that can get lodged and create a hazard. And there can also be hazards created by low bridges and things like that. These are all warnings that are very valid and need to be well-communicated before you get on the river."
Especially if it's running high. Click to access updated water-level information about Colorado rivers and streams from American Whitewater.