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Peak water: Heavy snowmelt is great for rafting and kayaking, as well as farming

PILAR – A group of about six rafters and kayakers, mostly Santa Fe County firefighters who had the day off, met up at the shores of the Rio Grande not far from Taos on Tuesday morning.

They came to take advantage of fast waters flowing downstream, thanks to a lot of melting snow at the river’s source in Colorado, as well as from northern New Mexico’s mountains.

John Adams, 40, a professional rafting instructor who was the only non-firefighter in the group, said this is the highest he can remember the river being in about 12 years. That’s going to keep him coming back to the water as much as possible in the coming weeks.

 From left, Will Graves, Daisy Graves and Robert Bell, all with the Santa Fe Fire Department, and rafting instructor John Adams fight through a rapid known as the Toilet Bowl on Tuesday

From left, Will Graves, Daisy Graves and Robert Bell, all with the Santa Fe Fire Department, and rafting instructor John Adams fight through a rapid known as the Toilet Bowl on Tuesday.

“This is a fun year we’re having,” Adams said. “We’re trying to boat almost every day. You just have to abandon everything, give up on work and just boat as much as you can.”

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Royce Fontenot, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the Rio Grande flow at Embudo, just south of Pilar, has already reached 4,111 cubic feet per second this spring, the highest it’s been since 2014, and the river hasn’t reached peak runoff yet.

He said snowmelt has been great in Colorado, which is where the Rio Grande starts in the Rockies, and there’s still a lot more snow to go around. The snowpack in the Rio Grande Basin, which feeds the river and its tributaries, is 137 percent of what it normally is this time of year, Fontenot said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website says the 2017 spring runoff is the highest snowmelt runoff in the Rio Grande since 2008.

“It’s been about 2008 or so since we’ve had this much water,” Fontenot said. “It’s something we haven’t had working on 10 years now.” The Rio Grande at Embudo was at 3,700 cfs at 3 p.m. Thursday, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Big Rock rapid on the Rio Grande on the "racecourse" south of Pilar is conquered by kayaker Willam Van Herpe on Tuesday

The Big Rock rapid on the Rio Grande on the “racecourse” south of Pilar is conquered by kayaker Willam Van Herpe on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Adam Quinn, one of the off-duty firefighters, said Tuesday that the portion of the Rio Grande in Pilar is now considered a Class 4, which is right where he wants it to be. Whitewater rapids are graded on a system of 1 to 6. Class 6 is “impossible,” Quinn said, while Class 5 is considered “rough.” But Class 4 is just right.

“Four is a lot of fun,” Quinn said. “It’s ideal conditions. It’s perfect.”

The current won’t be like this very long though, as water levels typically go down in June once the snowpack starts to disappear. Billy Miller – aka “Big River Billy,” owner of Big River Raft Trips in Pilar – said he expects a great whitewater season, but people who want to get the most out of the rapids should hit the river before it’s too late.

“This is the time to go rafting,” Miller said. “Don’t wait for it to warm up. All the water is going to be gone.”

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Of course, the high water doesn’t just benefit thrill seekers. Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, said farmers can grow more crops and afford to have more livestock when river flows go up. “When we have plenty of water, we can plant a lot more in our fields and irrigate more of our pastures,” she said.

Adams said he knows when farmers are using more water based on how the water level fluctuates. He said the river went down last week but shot up again this week. “You can tell when the farmers in the San Luis Valley (just over the state line in Colorado) are flooding the fields, because we’ll get a dip, but then they’ll stop and it will come back up,” he said.

Will Graves, left, Robert Bell, center, and John Adams take on the Toilet Bowl rapid on the Rio Grande on Tuesday

Will Graves, left, Robert Bell, center, and John Adams take on the Toilet Bowl rapid on the Rio Grande on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

With more water also comes more danger. On May 11 an experienced rafter, 67-year-old Daniel Willard of Tijeras, died when he fell out of his raft near Pilar and apparently drowned, the Taos County Sheriff’s Office said.

“You’re playing with Mother Nature, so you have no idea what’s going to happen,” Adams said. “A high-water year brings out everybody. Some people haven’t been on the water in a while, and stuff happens. Just make sure you have the right equipment, and it’s always nice to have somebody who’s done it before.

Adams said people should make sure they know how to swim before going rafting, and it might also be a good idea for people to get in the water before getting in the raft to get a feel for the current.

“Folks need to be cautious,” the NWS’ Fontenot said. “That river is a lot faster than it looks.”

A side effect of whitewater rafting seems to be addiction, as both Adams and Quinn have been rafting for about 20 years and don’t appear to want to stop anytime soon.

Will and Daisy Graves, who also came out with the rafting group, met through Adams in 2005 near the spot where everyone rendezvoused on Tuesday and got married in 2010. The couple still spends their summers on the river.

“It’s an addictive sport, for sure,” Adams said. “I went from having nothing, and now I have 4½ boats (laughs). I love it. You just gotta come back and do it again and again and again.”

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