When In Drought

Plenty of rafting despite low water levels

By Emily Vernizzi

Rafters enjoy the thrill of Class II-III Rapids on the South Fork American. Photos: All-Outdoors Whitewater Rafting Company

Rafters enjoy the thrill of Class II-III Rapids on the South Fork American. Photo: All-Outdoors Whitewater Rafting Company

Droughts. They’re rough. They cause all sorts of trouble, but don’t jump to too many conclusions. Many people assume that a drought means no rafting, but that’s not the case in California.

Despite what you’d think, there are still plenty of incredible rafting options even when Mother Nature leaves us pretty high and dry. In normal snowpack years, rafting outfitters do offer trips on a wider variety of rivers, but even in a drought there is rafting fun to be had in the Golden State.

How is this possible?

There are over 800 rivers in California with over 1200 dams along them. The reservoirs behind these dams come in all shapes and sizes and are positioned at all different elevations. During a drought, media outlets tend to focus on the large lower elevation reservoirs, such as Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, Don Pedro, and others. These reservoirs have huge water storage capacity and play a major role in supplying California with agricultural and urban water needs. When their levels are low, the state’s water supply is in trouble. These “mega reservoirs” require consistent normal to above-normal precipitation years to remain full.

More importantly for rafting, it’s the little-seen and less-discussed high elevation water storage reservoirs that are the deciding factors for the well-being of the rafting season. Luckily, these higher elevation reservoirs generally fare much better than the lower elevation ones during years with low snow and rainfall. They’re much smaller and do not need as much precipitation to refill. Even if the snow isn’t packin’, all rainfall also plays a crucial role in the refilling process.

Some of the most popular whitewater rafting trips offered by commercial outfitters take place on stretches of rivers conveniently located between the fuller high-elevation reservoirs and the not-so-full low-elevation reservoirs. Flows on these rivers are consistent and predictable as they are determined by a set schedule of controlled water releases from the upstream dams.

Reservoir-release rivers will be flowing similar to most years, just without high water levels in the early months of the season that occur after winters with normal snowfall. There is a great variety of trips, ranging from mild on the American River to wild on the Tuolumne River, even during times of drought.

Releasing water

The upstream reservoirs release consistent flows in all types of water years for many reasons: creating hydropower, municipal supply, agricultural supply, government licensing agreements, river & delta ecology, and recreational agreements.

Basically, there are many government mandated licensing agreements that require the high-elevation reservoirs to release water to meet downstream obligations. Reliable recreational flows figure into these licensing arrangements when it comes to the timing and the amount of water released from the upstream reservoirs. After many years of working together with the organizations managing the reservoirs upstream of the whitewater sections (Sacramento Municipal Water District for the American Rivers and San Francisco Water & Power for the Tuolumne River), the rafting community has established a symbiotic relationship making sure the release schedules work nicely for all parties involved.

California rafting companies offer a wide variety of rivers and itineraries allowing for memorable trips even during years of drought, so go ahead and plan that rafting adventure!

Remote canyon of the  Middle Fork American. Photos: All-Outdoors Whitewater  Rafting Company.

Remote canyon of the Middle Fork American. Photo: All-Outdoors Whitewater Rafting Company.


Emily Vernizzi is a rafting specialist who works and blogs for All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting – family owned and operated for three generations by the Armstrongs. All-Outdoors has been offering river trips for over50 years. aorafting.com

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