Whitewater in the Gunnison Basin
Earlier this spring we were eating pizza in downtown Paonia and in pulls a van carrying the Colorado Rocky Mountain School kayak racing team. In quick time they wolfed down the pre-ordered seven pizzas and unknown quantity of sodas and quickly headed over the pass to Carbondale. They were on the way home from the Colorado High School Kayaking Championships held in Durango.
In this case, Paonia was a just lucky stop on the trip home and the restaurant owner was happy to sell 7 extra pizzas on a slower cool spring evening.
In the world of recreational tourism, whitewater rafting accounts for $155 million tourist dollars spent in Colorado in 2011. The big hitter in Colorado rafting numbers is the Arkansas river which pulls in over 200 thousand user days per year. The Gunnison Basin draws a respectable 20,000. While whitewater recreation is a mere 16% of the tourism dollars that the ski industry racks up, it is none the less quite important to our local economies.
In the rural Colorado that we all love, it is often difficult to make a living. Many of us know ranchers and farmers who’s spouses work “regular” jobs to keep the family living successfully in the agricultural life style. Even when we do work “regular” jobs we do so at a pay rate well below those seen on the Front Range. So how do we make a rural economy work? The short answer is to diversify. The more feeder veins feeding the aorta, the quicker it fills. Here on the Western Slope few of us expect or want to make it rich, but we sure would like our children to be able to come back after college and make a go of it.
This is where recreational boating really helps locally. It does not drive the economy, but is yet another feeder vein carrying blood. When tourists show up in the summer and spend an extra day to raft, canoe or boat on a lake, they need another nights lodging and food for sustenance. And we locals are there to help!
The Taylor River accounts for 2/3 of the boating user days in the basin. This helps with the summer tourism AND keeps the energetic ski area employees employed off season. Full restaurants and full rental houses really help the Upper Basin.
Down valley, the Gunnison Gorge, the Lower Gunnison and even the short Lake Fork season all add a little something to the local economy. From Lake City all the way down Hwy 50 into Junction, businesses get just a bit more to keep them running.
In real numbers, direct spending on recreational boating adds 1.9 million dollars to the Upper Gunnison economy and generates a total of 4.9 million in dollars overall. In the lower Gunnison (Lake Fork and below) benefits directly from over ½ million dollars spent and 1.4 million in economic activity.
These numbers from the Colorado River Outfitters Association 2001 report DO NOT include economic activity generated from fishing, pleasure boating on the Curecanti reservoirs or what are called “private boaters.”
A private boater is one that likes the sport enough that they purchase all the necessary gear to raft, kayak or canoe rivers on their own. Such enthusiasts are then not confined to the commercially run sections of rivers but can run anything legally accessible. Highly skilled kayakers will run the Class V Oh-Be-Joyful Creek above Crested Butte or Escalante Creek below Delta. They too, will purchase food and the occasional adult beverage during their travels. Those liking somewhat calmer waters can run the North Fork of the Gunnison or the “Gunny Gorge” and the locals benefit via renting pack animals or from visits to local wineries.
All of this fun happens on the water that flow down our rivers. Some is en route to a municipal water supply, some of it is destine to an irrigator and some to users outside the state. The Gunnison Basin Round Table, a group designated to plan for our future water needs, has chosen to look at recreation river use as a part of the whole. Not a use contrary to the end user, and whenever possible encourages all projects on our rivers to help the water right holder as well as the users on the delivery channel.
In the end, as our waters flow to its rightful use, all can enjoy it and with any luck that chance restaurant visit will become the norm.
The author, Neal Schwieterman, is the Recreational Representative on the Gunnison Basin Round Table and the Director of the Paonia Kayak Club.