Matt Nicotra held his metal measuring stick aloft as he waded into Colorado’s Bear Creek, high in the Rockies. He charted how a rainstorm affected this South Platte River tributary, which for most of the spring and summer ran six times below its historical median.
“This is actually, with the rain we had, normal flow,” said Nicotra, a hydrologic technician with the U.S. Geological Survey. “We were running between five and eight cubic feet per second. Now we’re running at 50 cubic feet per second.”
A week later, water flow fell to 25 cubic feet per second, half of the median daily volume, according to the USGS. More major rivers start in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains than in any other U.S. state, feeding a $155 million commercial rafting business. Yet many tributaries that rely on meltwater from snowpack -- measured in June at 2 percent of average -- are running dry, reducing some rafting companies to half their typical tourist offerings.
Beyond Colorado, the economic impact of the country’s most widespread drought in 56 years is trickling down to businesses that rely on fishermen in Montana, boaters in Texas and paddlewheel riverboat enthusiasts on the Mississippi, and threatening the lucrative hunting season in South Dakota and Kansas that starts as early as next month for certain species.
Record temperatures in Colorado fueled last month’s Waldo Canyon blaze -- the most destructive wildfire in state history - - shutting down Manitou Springs, a 142-year-old resort town at the base of Pikes Peak, for a day and causing restaurants and businesses to lose $2.3 million because of the perception the town was closed longer.
Hotel occupancy rates plunged to 30 percent in July and tourists canceled reservations into September. Eleven companies may not survive the winter, said Roger Miller, chief operating officer of iManitou, a collaboration of the Manitou Chamber of Commerce, Visitors Bureau and Office of Economic Development
“We lost the top two weeks of the year as far as revenue generation,” Miller said. “People now are coming in on day trips and not making the high-level retail purchases long-term vacationers do. A number of our larger businesses had to lay people off.”
In Texas, restaurants and outfitters on the northwest side of Lake Travis watched profits dry up as the water receded, leaving docks standing on dry ground. For businesses that reap $112 million a year from the 65-mile-long (105-kilometer) lake, revenue drops when the water level falls below 660 feet, a 2011 report found. The lake level yesterday was 639 feet.
Pheasant hunters in Kansas are wary that increasing demand for hay will deprive birds of a place to weather the winter, and reduce cover for hunters, putting at risk the $300 million South Dakota collects each year through hunting licenses, hotel reservations and sales receipts from sporting goods stores.
Wetlands in the state’s southeast that are frequented by dozens of species of waterfowl are “bone dry,” according to the Nature Conservancy. Enthusiasts warn that thousands of birders and hunters who flock to the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area may stay away because there won’t be anything to see or shoot.
Meteorologists say the drought, categorized as “extreme” and “exceptional” in parts of the Midwest and the Great Plains by the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map, isn’t expected to ease anytime soon, even as monsoon rains bring temporary relief to some areas.
“Things were looking good in February and then in the summer, with the heat, the drought expanded and exploded,” said David Miskus, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. “Right now, no models are showing a prolonged wet spell through October, making it likely it will stay the same, or expand somewhat.”
The forecast is bad news for recreational outfitters in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, who watched their summer tubing business -- floating down a river on an inner tube -- dry up just as they were coming off a slow winter ski season. Many companies that depend on the water in the state were already reeling from the summer 2011 season, when water in rivers ran at record highs, causing many tourists to shy away.
“On June 20, 2011, our flow was 4,000 cubic feet per second, this year on June 20, it was 40 cubic feet per second,” said Pete Van De Carr, who owns Backdoor Sports. “We missed three weeks in late June and early July this year, including the two biggest weekends of our season.”
Van De Carr, who said he’s been in business since 1986 on the banks of the Yampa River, estimated his revenue is down 70 percent this year from 2010, when water was at more normal levels.
Stream flow in Colorado in early July was below normal at more than 80 percent of USGS long-term monitoring stations, with record low flows recorded at 23 stations, according to a report compiled by the agency. No one knows the effects of low rivers better than Bill Dvorak, who started running rafts down the Arkansas River in 1969.
“I operate on nine different rivers; this year, I can only operate on four,” said Dvorak, whose Dvorak Expeditions is based in Nathrop, Colorado, about 120 miles southwest of Denver. “I hired fewer staff this year knowing we would be more limited.”
Those who make their living on the water in Texas say that their business is also suffering. In Jonestown, about 25 miles northwest of Austin, Ron Sherrill said he typically fixes about 200 boats in a season at Sandy Creek Boat Repair on Lake Travis. This year, he expects 100.
“This is as bad as I’ve seen it in the 26 years I’ve been here,” said Sherrill. Wealthy residents who own second homes on the lake are keeping his company afloat, he said. “Our boat ramp hasn’t been in the water now for over a year.”
Across the Midwest, parks and wildlife managers are keeping an eye on river temperatures. As water warms, it holds less oxygen, putting stress on coldwater fish such as trout. Rivers and streams in Western Colorado approached the low 70s many days this summer -- almost 20 degrees above normal -- prompting rangers to ask that anglers voluntarily suspended fishing in some areas.
Parks officials in Montana instituted “hoot-owl closures” on three rivers, prohibiting fishing from 2 p.m. to midnight as drought reduced flow and warmed the water, said Ron Aasheim, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
On the lower Mississippi River, the American Queen Steamboat Co. is monitoring water levels at the port of Vicksburg, about 200 miles north of New Orleans, where the water level yesterday was about four feet, according to the National Weather Service. The company’s paddlewheelers need about 10 feet of water to operate, said Tim Rubacky, a senior vice president.
“Vicksburg is a concern, they’re trying to move heaven and earth to dredge the channel to nine feet,” Rubacky said. “This is the lowest the Mississippi has been in 20 to 30 years.”
In Kansas, wildlands managers are predicting up to 30 species of shore birds migrating from Canada to South America will bypass wetlands in the center of the state that are defying their name.
“We have absolutely no surface water -- it’s bone dry out here -- so unless something changes drastically, you’re not going to see much as far as bird species,” said Robert Penner, avian programs manager for the Nature Conservancy at Cheyenne Bottoms, a wildlife area which is about 100 miles northwest of Wichita.
“We have people from all over the country come to Cheyenne Bottoms in the fall to hunt,” he added. “That’s going to have an impact on the local community.”
Pheasant watchers in South Dakota are hopeful a mild winter and early spring gave the birds an early start on hatching and rearing chicks before the summer heat. The drought could still affect birds and hunters, however, by depriving them of cover, said Dave Nomsen, vice president of government affairs at St. Paul, Minnesota-based Pheasants Forever, a habitat conservation organization.
“A lot of forage is drying up, or burning up, or being baled,” he added. “We’re very concerned.”