With snowpack at 17 percent of average, water levels may be too low to support raft trips like this one above on the Upper Salt River this season.

Wilderness Aware Rafting

Commercial rafting companies are canceling their seasons along the Upper Salt River and the Verde River due to a depleted water supply, forcing adventure seekers elsewhere.

This winter has been one of the worst years for snowpack, with only 17 percent of the average, said Don Sullivan, wilderness-river manager for Tonto National Forest. About 10 inches of snow water is the minimum needed for a worthwhile rafting season and this year there is only 1.7 inches of snow water, Sullivan said.

The Salt River originates in the White Mountains, which most years gets a pretty extensive snowpack, said Michael Bruce, a National Weather Service meteorologist. The snow melts during the spring, comes down the Salt River and is stored in reservoirs.

Typically everal inches of water is tied up in the snowpacks in the White Mountains and the Mogollon Rim, but this year there is only a fraction of that water, Bruce said, which could diminish activities in areas above the dams.

“The Salt is a very fickle character,” said Donnie Dove, owner of Canyon Rio Rafting, one of the four commercial outfitters with an Upper Salt River permit. “She is quite spectacular and quite beautiful, but if there’s no water, there’s no fun.”

For Canyon Rio Rafting in Flagstaff, a normal season begins March 1 and lasts through the end of May.

Because of low water flows, the outfitter decided to cancel its season three weeks ago. The last season cancellation was five years ago.

Although it rained last weekend, Dove said it was a “flash in the pan” and will not significantly change the water level.

Dove added that there will not be much of an impact business-wise, since his company coordinates other river trips.

However, he said it is a bummer for Tucson and Phoenix residents who are usually the ones to participate.

Tonto National Forest offers permits through private river-trip systems and to commercial outfitters.

Typically more than 1,600 people apply for private boaters’ permits with 304 randomly selected and offered permits. A lot of people have decided not to buy their permits, Sullivan said.

“It’s hard to want to plan for your vacation when you don’t think there’s going to be water,” Sullivan said. “People switch their plans and decide they want to go somewhere else.”

This year he anticipates towns like Globe and Miami will take a financial hit, as fewer visitors spend money on food, hotels and gas.

Wilderness Aware Rafting, which is based out of Colorado, decided to cancel its 2014 season on the Salt River last week, when the season would have begun.

“The higher the flow, the more rocks that are covered and the bigger the waves,” said Joe Greiner, owner of the company, who anticipates flows of less than 300 cubic feet per second. “We need an absolute minimum of 400 cfs to get the boats out without having to drag it out over the rocks.”

Greiner said that in a good year the four outfitters get about 10,000 people rafting on the Upper Salt River. His company spent $20,000 in marketing and maintaining equipment dedicated to the Upper Salt River.

Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Trail Tours, which has been operating on the Salt River since 1998, also canceled its season there and on the Verde River. Alex Mickel, president of the company, said if there is a “March miracle of snow,” he might consider operating in April.

But it doesn’t look like commercial rafting outfitters are offering trips any time soon.

“Right now they would be here setting up shop and taking people boating and making money,” Sullivan said. “And they’re not here at all. They’ve stayed home.”

Brittny Mejia is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at starapprentice@azstarnet.com