How will rafting season stack up?
In a business dictated by the whims of Mother Nature and federal water laws, early summer for local float rafting companies means a lot of waiting.
Last year was cruel irony for rafting outfits. There was literally too much water downstream in the Truckee River to allow the Lake Tahoe dam to open and release enough water to send commercial boats onto the river.
Businesses watched Fourth of July, their biggest weekend, come and go without enough water coming from Lake Tahoe to run rafts.
“I would say it was a down year,” said Judy Bell, co-owner of Truckee River Rafting Company. “We were only open about 58 days.”
This year has the same characteristics that prevented early rafting last year ” a big, late-season snowpack.
But there is a glimmer of hope for early rafting, said Chad Blanchard, chief hydrologist at the Federal Watermaster’s office in Reno, which controls water flows in the area. Lake Tahoe is forecast to fill to its brim early this summer, which means water may begin flowing from the Lake Tahoe dam as early as June.
“We may have more runoff than we have room for, so we may have to spill,” Blanchard said.
The amount of forecasted runoff above what Lake Tahoe can absorb is modest, so flows may be perfect for rafting, between 200 or 250 cubic feet per second.
After enough water spills from the lake to allow it to stay below its high water level, no more water will be released until the tributaries to the Truckee begin to slacken and the water level on the Truckee River at Farad drops below 500 cubic feet per second.
The situation could mean raftable water in June and July, followed by a break in mid-July, until the Truckee River tributaries dry up enough to necessitate the Tahoe City dam to open.
“We’ll spill until the lake level is controlled,” Blanchard said.
All of these requirements for when and how much water can be released are governed by federal water law “-a 1935 water agreement struck between different users of Truckee River water. If the water passing Farad, east of Truckee, is flowing at 500 cubic feet per second or more, the Tahoe City dam can only release minimal flows.
“To allow us to spill or release water, we need a federal court order,” Blanchard said.
So for Bell, as well as other Tahoe City businesses that profit from the influx of rafters that come to float the Truckee River, all there is to do is wait.
“We’re definitely on hold,” Bell said.
Kathleen MacAllister, director of the North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, hopes the waiting doesn’t extend into the middle of summer like last year.
“That was really hard on the businesses and really hard on the tourists that came,” she said.
For rafting companies, the difficult thing is scheduling employees for the summer while water flows remain up the in the air, said Bell. And for the callers who inquire when the float rafting season will start, all she can do is pass on the uncertainty.
“We come down and look at the river everyday and call the watermaster,” Bell said.
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