Megadrought in the West: Is the Colorado River Really Drying Up?

Dear Friends,

Western River Expeditions is coming into its 62nd year of creating river rafting opportunities through the iconic canyons of the Colorado River. In fact, it may be safe to say that we have created more rapid-filled adventures for people from all over the world than just about any other company plying their oars in this region.

Over the years we’ve learned a thing or two. Rivers rise and rivers fall. We adjust our boats and rafting strategies accordingly. At present we’re facing the challenges of decades of drought that have taken their toll on the Colorado River.

Kam Wixom is the Marketing Director for Western River Expeditions. He knows the ebbs and flows of this river better than most. He began guiding in the Grand Canyon in 1991, met and guided with his wife, and now is the proud daddy of five children. I asked him to shed some light on what vacationers can anticipate this year and down the road if the climate-driven drought continues.

Q. Megadrought in the West: Is the Colorado River Really Drying Up?

Over the last sixty-plus years in the river rafting business, we’ve seen low water levels, we’ve seen high water levels. We’ve seen giant hydroelectric dams put in place, and just this year we’ve seen water levels drop low enough to potentially render the hydroelectric turbines of Glen Canyon Dam inert within the next one to two years. But there is still a river flowing despite it all. There are still fish swimming in the river. There are still river guides hoopin’ and hollerin’ as they make the cut to hit the big wave coming off the big rock that’s now just more exposed.

Yes. The effects of the current drought are serious. But with 60+ years under our belt, Western River Expeditions has what it takes to adapt to these changes and the new “normal”. We continue to offer a quality river experience. We’ve been here before!

However, our ability to paddle through doesn’t diminish the effects of such headlines about the drought that are accumulating:

  • Smithsonian Magazine: “The Colorado River Runs Dry”
  • Science Friday: “What Happens When the Colorado River Runs Dry?”
  • The New York Times and USA Today: “Climate Change is Killing the Colorado River”
  • National Geographic: “Can the Colorado River keep on running?”
  • “The Colorado River: What’s broken and how to fix it”

It can be hard to decipher the truth from alarming news stories, especially from their headlines alone. There is a water crisis in the West, and the last twenty years have shown a particular cause for alarm. As GreenBiz concludes accurately, “The Colorado River Basin is the "canary in the mine" for the future of water in the American West.”

Q. What does the West’s trending drought mean to you, to the guides and to the future on the rivers and the broader uses of the West’s water?

While the “Mega drought” of the last two decades has proven to be the driest in the last 1200 years, water has always flowed in the major rivers of the West. We will simply calibrate the size of the craft to match the volume of the river’s flow. Then we will hope and pray for more snow and rain and do our best to maintain our high standards of customer experience. We’ve done it this way in Utah’s Cataract Canyon since 1961. Rivers rarely dry up entirely. As long as there are rivers flowing, we will run them.

Q. What will water flows be like in 2022 and how will the flows affect my river trip?

Despite the drought, man-made water releases from a series of reservoirs will keep 2022 water flows higher than expected. Higher-than-expected water flows like this are rare and could be the last time we will see such flows in the West if the mega drought persists. Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which straddles the Utah-Wyoming border, will release 500,000-acre feet of water over the next twelve months in order to prevent Lake Powell water levels from dipping below hydroelectric capability. Lower Basin (think Lake Mead) will eventually have the use of that water for crops in California. Most of the water will be released during the hottest summer months in order to try to replicate "normal" flows and natural rhythms.

This strategy of replicating “normal” flows is similar to that of a normal winter snowpack melting off and filling the rivers. As of the first part of June, snowpack for the Colorado River Basin was higher than it was in 2021 and at 91% of the past seven-year average.So things are looking near normal for 2022. We also have the added benefit of higher ground water saturation, thanks to a wetter Fall than the year before. This basically means the ground will not be as thirsty and water will shed more directly into the reservoirs and rivers.

This means that water levels in Cataract Canyon and the Grand Canyon will see water flows more typical of non-drought years. In all honesty, if this drought continues, this could be the last year we see "normal" flows for several years to come. Unless we see consecutive higher than normal snowpack that will help fill the reservoirs, we can only project lower than normal flows in the coming years.

Q. What do lower water levels mean for Recreational Rafting?

Is the river half empty or is it half full? More than just a test of whether you're an optimist or a pessimist, there are actual quantifiable reasons why lower water is just fine with Western River Expeditions – and for you:

  • RAPIDS: Lower water levels don’t directly equate to diminished whitewater rapids. Some rapids actually come alive in lower water. Westwater Canyon is an example where higher water "washes out" many of the best rapids. Whitewater in Desolation Canyon, Cataract Canyon and many rapids in Grand Canyon gain a bit more kick and punch with lower water. In fact, the rapids of the Lower Granite Gorge in the Grand Canyon actually become more technical as massive boulders are exposed and the waves become much larger and more challenging. There are so many different configurations of the canyon walls and rocky river beds that you can find whitewater thrills no matter the water level. From a guide perspective, higher water flows faster, requiring faster, or more anticipated response times between moves. Lower water moves more slowly but reveals more obstacles to maneuver between. It’s all part of the fun and skillset of navigating whitewater rapids!
  • CAMPING: Lower water levels bring broad, sandy beaches. We're talking space for endless fun with games on the beach like Kubb, Spikeball, Frisbee and building sandcastles. Lower water flows provide more space in which to camp, perhaps on a sandbar away from vegetation. We witness this every year as snowmelt slows and rivers drop into more curvy and sinuous paths between the shoreline. Another unique option with low water is the opportunity to camp on a sandbar revealed only in low water. Camping on a sandbar can provide a nice flat space for your cot and tent away from vegetation and critters that live nearby. Guides anticipate the camping spots that only become available in lower water.
  • BUGS: Fun fact: There are fewer bug problems in lower water. What more can we say? Higher water flowing beyond its banks through the vegetation stirs up our six-legged, desert-dwelling insect friends. High water also leaves large puddles of standing water that make a perfect breeding ground for said friends. In lower water months and years, we don't see this cycle.

Q. What can we do?

What can we do now? I say we all do the rain dance, practice conservation and teach others to think in more sustainable ways. But while the rivers are running, we strongly invite folks to come run the rivers and tell their family and friends about the experience. It might be the best kick-start to being an activist for rivers that one could ever hope for!

For more history on why the West’s water predicament is where it is today, please see our blog post

And please pick up the phone or email me if you would like more information and resources on this issue.

Kindest regards,

Brian Merrill

CEO of Western River Expeditionsand 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.