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The severe drought lingering in the western half of the United States this summer has created challenging conditions for many in the boating industry. For retailers, outfitters and service providers from northern California to Minnesota, the low, warm water is just one factor in the complicated matrix of conditions affecting their businesses — in positive and negative ways.

From the long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on supply chains and inventory, to an influx of new residents looking to make the most of outdoor opportunities, to wildfires that blanketed regions in smoke, boating professionals were forced to rethink or sometimes completely alter their usual business practices. While boat dealers seemed best positioned to weather difficult conditions, those in the outfitting and service sectors were often left to figure out how to replace lost revenue while praying for rain and the cooler temperatures of fall.

Boating enthusiam remains robust despite the drought. As a result, High Country Boats in Montana is finding success transitioning from showroom purchases to special ordering.

Boating enthusiam remains robust despite the drought. As a result, High Country Boats in Montana is finding success transitioning from showroom purchases to special ordering.

Down the Drain

One of the ways in which boat dealers and service providers in the Rockies are protected from the effects of drought is that many large reservoirs have mandated minimum water levels. This is unfortunately not the case for Northern California’s massive Lake Oroville, 75 miles north of Sacramento — the state’s second-largest reservoir and a crucial source of water for agriculture and cities. By mid-July, the lake was down an incredible 243 feet from its full-pool level of 900 feet and held less than 28 percent capacity.

Jared Rael, assistant general manager of Bidwell Canyon Marina in Oroville, says that they began pulling houseboats from the lake in May, before they lost access to the launch ramp, and ended up pulling about 130 boats overall. By the end of July, only a single small-boat-only ramp was still in the water, accessible only by 4x4s. The low water makes even the simplest tasks at a canyon marina more difficult, Rael says. “For every one vertical foot, it is about two to three feet of land down the hill. That means a lot of extra utility lines to keep the marina running, trips to and from the marina for every shuttle ride or just to take out the trash. Some of us have to rappel about 80 feet down a rope just to get to work.”

Under these circumstances, marina operators spend a lot more money and take in a lot less. “We had to buy lumber and labor to build the cribbing to put those houseboats on,” Rael says. The marina made the tough decision to not open its popular bar and grill, Anchor Management, and their new kayak and paddleboard rental business has suffered because the amount of foot traffic is way down from a normal year. That’s a lot of lost revenue and a lot of employment opportunities put on hold.

Although many customers have been upset by the marina’s response to the dropping water, many long-time customers have been understanding and uplifting, letting Rael and his crew know that they are doing a great job in an ever-changing field of work. All they can do is try to maintain a good attitude and hope that the rains come and the state takes less water from the lake next year.

Ron Boggs (left) of High Country Boats and Mike Geary of Lewis & Clark Expeditions are dealing with the drought in different ways. 

Ron Boggs (left) of High Country Boats and Mike Geary of Lewis & Clark Expeditions are dealing with the drought in different ways. 

Without a Paddle

Each year, people from around the world flock to the Mountain West for the opportunity to float rivers in drift boats or rafts, and a large industry of lodges, outfitters and guides is built around these small-watercraft trips. From fly-fishing day trips on iconic rivers such as the Madison, Snake and Colorado, to multiday wilderness floats on backcountry waters such as the Smith and Salmon rivers, there are thousands of boats launched every day from April through October.

Because of the drought, many of these rivers are experiencing historically low flows, sometimes to the point where hard-bottom boats are no longer viable. Longtime fly-fishing guide Bob Streb, who works in Colorado’s Vail Valley, says he is seeing a lot more rafts on the water, a trend he expects to continue in response to the increased frequency of low-water years.

But there comes a point where water is so low that even rafts can’t make it downriver. Brandon Boedecker of Montana’s PRO Outfitters says, “We watched the Smith River disappear before our eyes this year.” The five-day float down the Smith — through canyons and roadless wilderness — is one of the more coveted trips in the West, and these expeditions represent a large portion of annual revenue for those outfitters with permits to operate on the river.

By mid-June, the river was impassable, causing PRO to cancel five of its planned 12 trips, leading to a loss of about $200,000 in gross revenue. According to Mike Geary of Lewis & Clark Expeditions, this year was the earliest he’s had to cancel trips in his 30 years of floating the Smith, and he recognizes and laments that such
cancellations affect many people.

Montana has a $500 million fishing industry, 99 percent of which is predicated on the ability to float rivers. Cancelled trips mean that guides and support staff aren’t getting paid. They have a harder time paying a mortgage, making a car payment and getting their kids school
supplies and clothes.

Low water usually means an increase in water temperature, as well, which causes further problems for those who cater to trout anglers. When water temperatures rise above the mid-60s, trout become stressed, meaning that they are less likely to survive being caught and released. To protect these trout populations, state agencies impose mandatory or voluntary restrictions, often called “hoot owl” restrictions, limiting fishing after 2 p.m. when the water is warmest. As a result, outfitters end up selling more half-day float trips, which disappoints customers and reduces overall revenue.

As everyone in the boating industry responds to these ever-changing, sometimes difficult conditions — both on the water and in the dealer showroom — there’s still a remarkable positive energy on display. Even those struggling to replace lost revenue are hopeful that the rains will come, demands on water supplies will drop and everyone can get back to enjoying time on the water. 

Phil Monahan is a former magazine editor who lives with his family in Vermont.

This article was originally published in the October 2021 issue.

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