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Rafters looking for big water, big year

SANTA FE, N.M. — Following this winter’s substantial snowfall, river flow in parts of the Rio Grande is expected to be the highest in years.

Ed Lucero, from Embudo, river surfs on whitewater on the Rio Grande Race Course near Pilar on Thursday. River surfers, kayakers and rafters are expecting a good season this year. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

And as Northern New Mexico’s rafting season gets underway, local outfitters say they are gearing up for what are expected to be “phenomenal” conditions – especially compared to last year’s historically low, drought-induced river levels.

“We’re tickled pink,” said Steve Miller, co-owner of New Wave Rafting based in Embudo. “For us, water is everything, as it is for everyone else in the state when you come right down to it.

A raft loaded with whitewater guides for Los Rios River Runners comes through the Souse Hole on the Rio Grande Race Course section of the Rio Grande near Pilar on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“We can hardly wait to start to see what thrills are in store on the river,” he said.

Rafting season typically starts in mid- to late-March and goes into early fall. Many New Mexico rafting companies provide rides on both the Rio Grande and Rio Chama.

Miller said flow levels measured at the Rio Grande below Taos Junction Bridge – a main U.S. Geological Survey gage that rafting outfitters track – are expected to reach more than 4,000 cubic feet per second, possibly near the end of May.

“That gives you good rafting,” Miller said of this year’s estimated levels. “Exciting, white-knuckle rafting.”

Two rafts from New Wave Rafting Co. leave John Dunn Bridge and head through the Taos Box on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But peak flows will depend on how snowpack runoff is impacted by weather. If the coming weeks bring an early spell of hot weather, the quicker melting could cause a major peak that could then drop off significantly.

If there’s a trend of cooler weather, the outfitters explained, peak runoff won’t be as high, but may stick around for a longer run further into the season. Anywhere in the 3,000-5,000 CFS range will make for a great year, said Matt Gontram, co-owner of New Mexico River Adventures.

“Not historic highs this year, but we’ll see some great flows and some splashy flows that we hope will extend into the season, into August and early September,” Gontram said.

Britt Runyon, top, the operations manager for New Wave Rafting Company, guides a raft through a rapid in the Taos Box stretch of the Rio Grande on Thursday. River flows are starting to build toward a peak expected in late May. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Jared McClure, owner of Santa Fe Rafting Company, said 2019’s water levels will likely be the highest in about a decade. Last year’s particularly dry winter caused the CFS levels remain below 600 all season. The year before, in 2017, Miller recalled flows being in the 3,000s.

The river flow is starting to build. From April 17 to April 24, the average daily flow of the Rio Grande below Taos Junction Bridge as recorded by the USGS increased from 438 CFS to 1,250 CFS.

According to McClure, some people are already comparing the 2019 season to the rafting conditions in 2005, when the flow measured at 7,000-8,000 CFS. “I don’t think we’re going to see quite as much as we did that year, but it’s still going to be pretty exciting,” he said.

While funseekers do still raft in low-water conditions, McClure said the higher levels provide a bigger whitewater experience. “Definitely it gets everyone’s adrenaline pumping a lot more,” he explained.

Outfitters will be able to take riders out to the Taos Box, a well-known spot in the heart of the Rio Grande Gorge with Class IV rapids (on a scale of I-VI). The Box is not accessible when water levels are low. Outfitters couldn’t take their customers there last year.

From left, Mark Gonzales, a guide, Britt Runyon, a guide and operations manager for New Wave Rafting Co., and Jack and Hannah Horky from Iowa, get ready to raft. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Another particularly popular run on the Rio Grande, the Race Course, is also a different experience in high water, according to Miller, going from a Class III to Class IV in certain spots. He cited a certain rapid, Souse Hole, that gets increasingly difficult and there’s more potential for boats to flip.

“It’s going to be providing a lot of thrills,” said Miller.

From a business standpoint, Gontram said his bottom line and the number of people his company takes out in a season hasn’t been affected much from low flow to high flow years. But he hopes there will be some ridership growth during the 2019 season and that he expects to see more locals coming out to raft. Miller and McClure both said that years like this can mean an increase in the number of rafters, specifically experienced locals who wait for good water.

Miller said New Wave’s total gross receipts for a season can be about 30% higher when locals come out in full force.

“We’ve definitely already gotten a lot of locals booked for this season compared to years prior,” said McClure, whose company’s first run was last Sunday.

“They’re definitely making the phone calls, so it’s good to hear.”

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