What about Water for Adventures?
How a dry or wet water year may or may not affect the adventures we do.
As our name (Rock-N-Water) implies, much of what we do makes use of water. We drink it, rafting on it, swimming in it, panning for gold in it, hike around it, admire it, and cool off in it. While we like to think of water as a limitless resource, as drought years can make very clear, there are limitations to how much water is available for use in a given area at a given time. When we plan adventures that make use of water, we also make plans for how the adventure might need to change or adjust should we be faced with more or less water than is ideal for the experience we desire to offer.
While not an exhaustive explanation, here are some of the ways that water availability can affect the adventures we do, and some of the ways we adapt to this fluid resource (pun intended).
Understanding Water Availability in California
The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) tracks a seemingly innumerable amount of data relating to water including: rainfall, runoff, snow fall, snow pack, reservoir storage, and a plethora of other meteorolgical data. When planning our adventures each year, we draw upon a wide variety of resources including many from the DWR. It’s a lot of information, however theexecutive summary is a great place to start if you are trying to get a quick understanding of the current water situation for California.
Water years are broken down into 6 categories: Super Dry, Critically Dry, Dry, Below Normal, Above Normal, and Wet. For some of our adventures (like rafting), the specific water year predicted for a given watershed will correlate to a specific minimum guarantee when it comes to the time and amount of water that area will receive. For other adventures, we get to do a little more number crunching in the office as we extrapolate hard data combined with weather forecasts to predict how much water we might expect.
Please visit our blog (rnwblog.com) for updated information on current water conditions and other events that might affect trips and/or our adventures. Please rest assured that any time weather, water levels, meteorological conditions, or any other events are happening that we believe could adversely affect a trip, we will contact the leaders of those potentially affected trips directly. If you are concerned about something, and you don’t see current information about it on our blog, please contact the leader that organized your trip. If they haven’t heard anything from us, have them contact us so that we might better look into and address the situation.
Each of the outdoor adventures that we provide are affected differently by water, some are even inversely affected when water conditions change. But for all of our adventures, we have plans in place so that campers will rarely be affected by changes that we might need to make for non-ideal water conditions. Here is a general idea of how changing water conditions may affect each of our adventures.
Whitewater River Rafting
You might think that white water rafting trips would be the most affected by changing water conditions, but water for rafting on the South Fork of the American River (SFAR) and the Middle Fork of the American River (MFAR) is actually some of the most consistent and reliable water of all the water we play with. For better or worse, there are vast networks of inner-connected water storage and collection reservoirs upstream of the rivers we raft on. So typically in big snow pack years the reservoirs fill up instead of sending flood waters downstream. While in drought years, or even just the dryer months of summer, the reservoirs let out some of the water that they held back during the times of plenty.
On the South Fork American River the amount of water, the days of the water, and even the times during which that water will be released are governed by the month and the current predicted water year for that watershed. It’s a bit of a complicated table, but the quick summary is that from Memorial Day through Labor Day, even in the worst of the worst of water years (Super Dry) we can count on rafting water five days a week (all but Tuesday and Wednesday). We quickly can count on Tuesday water with Dry and Below normal years, and 7 days of water with Above Normal and Wet years. But that’s just the minimum water we can count on, often times we’ll get rafting water on Wednesdays even if it’s not guaranteed. And with the office working it’s scheduling magic (sometimes as simple as planning to have a group raft on Thursday and go rock climbing on Wednesday instead of the other way around), campers won’t even notice if we don’t have 7 straight days of water on the SFAR.
During the non-summer months, the SFAR basically has rafting water on Saturdays and Sundays all year round, as well as rafting water on at least one or two weekdays during all but November-February.
In wet years on the SFAR, or years with a late melting snow pack, water levels can be higher than normal during April, May, and early to mid-June. While we have established limits for the highest the river flow (measured in Cubic Feet per Second or CFS) can be before we cancel a trip, and we have canceled trips (or moved them to a different adventure) before due to high water concerns, it’s not very often that we see water levels on the SFAR reaching that high. As water levels change, so do our procedures to minimize and address the added challenges that higher water brings.
Note: If you have a rafting trip approaching and you are hearing news reports about “high water” that are giving you concern, please give us a call – we don’t expect this static website about generic events to be sufficient for every specific question you might have.
Trips on the Middle Fork American River, have historically been even less adversely affected by dry water years. A re-licencing study is currently underway for the MFAR watershed that will, among other things, establish fixed water guarantees based on predicted water year types similar to how the SFAR is now set up. In the mean time, we typically have reliable water for rafting seven days a week from at least Memorial Day through Labor Day, and at least most of the weekends surrounding those dates. However, late melting snow packs can sometimes result in the water levels being too high to raft the MFAR in the Spring, and sometimes needing to wait until even mid to late June for rafting depending on conditions.
We visit a variety of canyons (Four canyons at last update, with two more currently being looked into as serious possibilities) for our canyoneering river hikes, and each canyon is affected differently (even inversely) from there being a lot or a little water. This gives us great flexibility when preparing for your adventure as we pick out the canyon that will be best for you under the current conditions. When levels are too high for some canyons (as is sometimes the case in May or early June) we’ll use the ones that do better with more water, and then when conditions change we simply switch over to canyons that need far less water when levels are not sufficient for other canyons. Come dry or wet year, we’ve got a canyon that’s fun to play in from May through September
Outdoor Rock Climbing
Cooling off in the water after a hard day of outdoor rock climbing is a great way to end the day. In years with deep or late melting snow packs, we are sometimes not able to enjoy the water until late June due to there being too much swift moving water. However, even in the critical dry years with far less water, there has always been plenty of water to play in all summer long after fun day of climbing around.
Actively falling rain while climbing is obviously not the most ideal situation, however the geology of the rocks we climb on means that even if it was pouring rain the night before, just a few hours of no rain in the morning, and the rocks will be sufficiently dry for an excellent day of climbing.
There is a delicate balance with snow for our backpacking program. To avoid there being “too much” snow, we aim for our first backpacking camps to be in the later part or the last full week of June. Aside from 2011 when nature actually dropped a few inches of snow in the last few days of June, we’ve never had a problem with there being too much snow for that first trip. If the snow pack is cooperating, we’ll sometimes book backpacking trips to start as early as Father’s Day Sunday.
The other side of the snow equation for backpacking trips is there being enough water in the rivers for us to play in all summer long. While we have experienced summers with far less water, we have always been able to play and have an amazingly fun time in the backcountry through at least the middle of August.
Our winter camps are located at about 6,400 foot elevation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to help provide a snow filled winter camp experience. However, snow pack coverage and depth are a lot less predictable than estimating water flows in the summer. Trips from December though Mid-March typically have sufficient snow to necessitate wearing snowshoes for the hike in, and plenty of areas to sled and play in the snow. Obviously we can do winter camps in November and even April or May as well. Because even if there isn’t a lot of snow on the ground, the winter cabin location is still perfect for lots of outdoor adventurous fun (wet or dry).
Wet or Dry water years offer no major problems for our California living history field trips. We really don’t need that much water to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation or to pan for Gold in the river. These field trips typically happen during months that have a decent chance of rain (April, May, September, October), so each trip is planned with the possibility of rain in mind. We’ve got some areas that we can move to if it starts to pour, but if you are coming to experience what life was like in California back in the 1800’s, you’d best expect to get a little wet.