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High Water In Cataract Canyon

Lately, there has been a lot of publicity about flooding rivers throughout the country.  The Colorado River and the Green River are no exception.  We are experiencing historic high amounts of snowpack with particularly high water content in the mountains of the Colorado River Basin.  The Colorado River Basin includes drainage into the Green River.  Eventually, the Green River combines with the Colorado River at the Confluence in Canyonlands National Park.  After that point, things really get exciting in Cataract Canyon.

River water flows are measured in Cubic Feet per Second (cfs).  Imagine a cubic foot of water flowing past a specific point in the river.  In an average year, Cataract Canyon might peak around 40,000 cfs.  In 1983 it peaked at 103,000; in 1984 at 114,000; and in 1995 at 80,000.  These are three highest water years since they started keeping records in the 1920s.

In each of those extreme high water years, the water content of the snow in the mountains was very high.  This year, 2011, ranks right up there with 1983 and still lags a little behind 1995.  Currently, 2011 is the third wettest year on record.

As you can see, the river is a little fickle.  By all estimates, the peak in 1995 should have been higher than in 1983 or 1984, but cooler than normal temperatures all the way through June caused the water to be released more gradually.  In 1983 and 1984, things warmed up in a hurry and it came down in a rush.  We are hoping for a repeat of 1995.  This will keep the peak from being too high, and it will allow more people to experience good water flows.

We at Western River Expeditions have been keeping an eye on this year’s snowpack and preparing for months now.  From the training we provide to the new guides to the continuing education we provide to our experienced guides we have emphasized techniques that are specific to high water.

There are inherent risks in river running and there is no way to completely eliminate these risks.  We do our best, but we are dealing with a free-flowing river that changes as the water rises and falls.  High water presents additional risk in that the water is moving much faster, it is very cold because it comes from snowmelt, and some of the rapids become larger and more challenging.

How does high water affect the rapids in Cataract Canyon?  Many of the rapids will flush over and flatten out, a good number more will become large, and rolling waves that will be a lot of fun.  The infamous Big Drop Rapids, particularly Big Drop 2 and Big Drop 3, will become larger and more significant as the water rises.   In previous high water years, we kept running the boats right on through the high water.  Our intention is to do the same this year.

If any of you have questions, please do not hesitate to call me (800-453-7450).  We hope to see you on the river.

Brian Merrill

Brian started his river career in 1984 and thought it would be a good summer job while in college. Along the way, he met his wife Dena, who also worked as a guide, tried a different career for a while, but came back to the river. His two older children have worked as river guides and his youngest is waiting his turn. Brian now serves as President and CEO of Western and is grateful, every day, for the wonderful people with whom he gets to work.

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