This time last year, on the Fourth of July, South Platte Park in Littleton was overrun with tubers floating down the South Platte River. This year — not so much.
Before noon on Independence Day 2018, the tiny parking lot beneath the Chatfield Reservoir still had parking spots available. That’s a huge change from last year, when adventure seekers left their cars lined all the way down the road, illegally, and and in huge numbers. The reason? An extremely scant snow runoff has left the river low this year. This has also encouraged an algae bloom that has coated the remaining water with stinky green blankets from Littleton all the way to Denver.
“This would be a great year to hike or bike instead of tube,” said Skot Latona, South Platte Park’s supervisor. Those who do try to float, he said, will end up “destroying the tubes, their bottoms or the river bottom.”
Not a good look.
Last year, Latona told us that realtime measurement tools can help tubers make smart choices about safety. Between 100 and 500 cubic feet per second is a safe “Goldilocks zone” for a float. Today, and since the end of June, that number has been essentially zero.
“The water just dropped out from under us,” Latona said. “This was apparently a very bad snow year in the south part of the South Platte watershed.”
He continued to say that these low levels only happens once in about any 10-year stretch.
“We have been waiting all spring for the runoff to come,” he said. “We called the water commissioner, and he said we’d already seen it.”
The algae bloom is also related to the low runoff. Latona said that most of the water in the river at this point is runoff from urban areas. A lot of fertilizers and not much fresh water to dilute it means that there’s a lot of nutrients to feed the smelly scum. It’s not really dangerous for local wildlife, though it could use up a lot of oxygen in the water if it decomposes. Generally, Latona said algae blooms are part of the river’s natural cycle. For boaters, though, algae creates a rather unpleasant odor.
In the parking lot at South Platte Park, would-be tubers were assessing their options.
“I assumed it was gonna be good,” said Doug Gagne, who did check the stream gauge after he arrived. “We’re going to go to a different river.”
“Bummed,” said his buddy Justin Hawksley, was a safe description of their current mood.
Another group gave it a shot. As they gingerly waded into the shallow river, one guy yelled, “We’ll be fine!”
This spot’s popularity has attracted business interests, too, though they have less flexibility to attempt tubing in dry times.
Adventure West River Tube Rentals was one of two companies to work out an operating permit with Latona to shuttle people from parking lots downstream to the river’s head. Mitchell Battilla, who owns the business with his wife, said this year was supposed to be a trial run to see if a longer-term presence might be feasible here. They already operate on Clear Creek in Golden, and partnered with Breckenridge Brewery to operate out of their riverside property.
“We never had the opportunity to run a single trip,” Battilla said. “We had to just eat it this year, we’re ready for next year.”
So are the rest of us.