River deaths are on the rise in Colorado
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River deaths are on the rise in Colorado

Jul 27, 2023

GREELEY | Deaths on rivers in Colorado are up from last year, according to data from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. So far this year, 18 people have died on the state’s rivers and creeks, compared to only 13 in 2022.

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The increase comes after heavy precipitation across the state. Above average winter snows and strong spring rains overloaded streams and rivers, making conditions more dangerous.

The Colorado River, which begins in Rocky Mountain National Park and eventually flows into Utah, has accounted for the most deaths and disappearances so far this year. Five people have died on the Colorado, and three are considered missing. The Arkansas River accounts for the second most deaths, with four.

“We want people out there recreating and having fun,” said Joey Livingston, a spokesman for CPW, “But water can inherently be dangerous. So there is a need to take some safety precautions.”

There is no official state tally of river deaths, but CPW has kept an unofficial list of incidents over the past two years. In addition to the 18 deaths, the agency’s list also marks three people as missing. CPW said river deaths occurred among rafters, tubers, and swimmers.

Another database of Colorado’s river incidents, kept by the advocacy group American Whitewater, shows that many of the deaths are on private or commercial rafting trips. Colorado is considered one of the nation’s most popular states for whitewater rafting. The Colorado River Outfitters Association reports that commercial raft customers spent $543,515 on the state’s rivers in 2022, resulting in an economic impact of more than $203 million.

So far, 2023 has delivered sustained high flows which are a direct result of high-mountain snow piled up in spades, rushing through rivers as it melted. Some parts of the state saw spring rain totals well above average, helping keep those flows high even after snow largely melted away. The Colorado River near Glenwood Springs, for example, has been flowing about 30% higher than average since peaking in June.

A release from CPW said just six inches of swift-moving water can knock a person off their feet, and water flowing at seven miles per hour has the equivalent force per unit area as air blowing above 200 miles per hour.

CPW is urging river users to take extensive safety precautions to reduce the risk of injury or death. That includes wearing a lifejacket and helmet, checking conditions ahead of time, and traveling with an experienced river guide.

Just like driving on the highway, Livingston said, “accidents happen,” even for experienced river travelers.

“So, similar to putting on your seatbelt when you get in a car, driving safely, driving slowly,” Livingston said. “You want to take some more precautions when you’re out on the water to make sure you have all your safety equipment, are aware of your surroundings and know the conditions before you go there.”

This year, people have also died in the Dolores River, the Roaring Fork River, the Animas River, Boulder Creek, and Fountain Creek. CPW’s tally also shows deaths in an irrigation canal in Lamar, Colorado and West Creek Falls within Rocky Mountain National Park.

CPW says overall water deaths in 2023 – a category that also includes drownings in reservoirs and other still bodies of water – are down from the year before.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

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