Operating a Recreational Rafting Company During a Time of Drought

Thoughts and Optimism from Western River Expeditions CEO Brian Merrill

November 2021

Dear Friends and Storytellers,

Since 1961, Western River Expeditions has immersed adventurers from around the world in the excitement of rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Re-emerging successfully from the pandemic we’re in, 2022 has been our best booking year ever, even with the absence of international clientele that usually flock to our door and account for a consistent percentage of our business.

So as our gear is cleaned, packed and put away for this season we ask, “What’s on our radar for next year and beyond?”

I can report that advance bookings for 2022 on all of our trips and rivers in the West are strong. Most departures in the Grand Canyon are full.

Traditionally each fall, we announce that we are accepting reservations for Grand Canyon trips a full two years out. 2023 dates will be open for public bookings on November 30th this year. Advanced planning and reality-based optimism are our “go-to’s” that have held us in good stead for decades.

These attributes are thus far carrying the company through the global pandemic that was a wallop out of left field. Less of a surprise are the vagaries of Mother Nature.

Thoughts on the Current Drought

Let me share some insights into the plans we’re prepared to implement to assure that rafting expeditions can continue despite a deepening drought that has affected and will continue to affect the Colorado River’s flow.

Low water is a challenge, but it’s a challenge that we’re used to. Over time we’ve experienced everything from extreme high to unusually low water levels. We’ve got it figured out. There are things that we love about low water and things we love about high water. We adjust accordingly.

Water levels dictate the type of equipment we use. Through Cataract Canyon for instance, lower water means we go to smaller boats carrying fewer (four to five) people than our patented J-Rigs (carrying up to 18) we commandeer for higher water. Additional smaller craft, which are being built for us now, will mean bringing on more guides. This is a slightly less efficient way to operate. But pardon the pun, we go with the flow.

In terms of the impact on our business, we tend not to worry about it too much on a year-in/year-out basis. We take what Mother Nature sends us but we keep our eyes wide open. We’ve been planning for low-water years and have hired accordingly. All our guides receive extensive hands-on training for each river we run, assigning our most experienced guides to navigate the more technical stretches of river encountered. Our planning also includes replacing equipment on a regular cycle, thus spreading expenses and impact over multiple years.

The severity of this drought is evidenced by the extremely low water levels in the two man-made reservoirs created by dams on the lower Colorado River. Both Lake Powell (Glen Canyon Dam) to the north and Lake Mead (Hoover Dam) to the south are currently adversely affected by the diminished flow of water from the respective dams. Until now the upstream dam has provided consistent flows.

We’re keeping a close eye on that. The flow routines are set up by law and agreement with working groups who monitor how much water to release from the dams. All kinds of interest groups, from power generation to fishing to agriculture, depend on the way the release is set up now so they always have enough water to operate. There are all sorts of “what ifs” if the lakes get so low the release systems can’t operate. But I’m confident that we’ll figure out how best to adjust. It’s been done in the past.

The experts say this extended drought goes back into the 1990s. In subsequent years we’ve had water conditions from the lowest to the highest we’ve ever seen. The question is now whether a sustained pattern of random good and bad snowpack years will continue. What I’ve learned is that the experts are often wrong. In this 50-50 deal I’ve learned to not count our chickens until they are hatched.

Eternal optimists that we are, we plan for challenges we can conquer and business ahead as usual.

Kindest regard,

Brian Merrill

CEO of Western River Expeditions and the Moab Adventure Center.

Note to Media

Brian is available for interviews on this topic and anything rafting related. If interested, please contact him at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

For Photos and Requests Contact Widness & Wiggins PR:

Sara Widness: 802.234.6704 / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Dave Wiggins: 720.301.3822 / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.