Update 7/22/19: At least eight additional people have died or gone missing on rivers across Colorado since 5280 originally published this story, bringing the total to nearly 20 drownings.
It would have been an idyllic summer day in Creede, but when the shops and cafes opened on June 28, a pall hung over the town of only 700 residents in the heart of the Rio Grande National Forest. Zack Jones, a 33-year-old who is well known throughout the community, was swept from an overturned raft on the Rio Grande River the day before—and though his two companions made it to shore, Jones was missing.
The dams above the stretch of river near Creede were shut off, lowering water levels in hopes of finding him. Volunteers woke early, towing boats down Main Street to a staging area south of town. As locals prepared to drag the river, a group of anglers spoke quietly about Jones on the front porch of a fly shop. A woman overheard the grim conversation and asked what was happening.
“A body recovery,” a man told her.
It’s a familiar story in Colorado. Days earlier, the body of Roberta Sophia Rodriguez, a 38-year-old woman from Colorado Springs, was found about 20 miles from Creede on the Rio Grande’s south fork. She reportedly slipped from the banks during a hike along Highway 160. On June 27, a Louisiana woman was taken downstream above the Rio Grande Reservoir after her Jeep stalled crossing a high-alpine creek near Silverton. She has not been found.
In other parts of the state, the danger is just as great. On June 29, a man drowned in the Arkansas River in Buena Vista while stand-up paddleboarding, and on July 1, an Arizona man drowned in Clear Creek near Idaho Springs, after which Jefferson County officials restricted access to the river. Already, at least a dozen people have drowned in fast-moving water in Colorado this year, and rivers will continue to be dangerous as historic levels of snowpack drain into the state’s waterways.
“My life is rivers. But they scare the hell out of me when they get like this,” says Matt Rice, Colorado River Basin director for American Rivers and a former fly-fishing guide. “It freaks me out.”
According to Rice, the 2019 water levels are not unprecedented (flows in 2011, for instance, were higher) but the way water is draining from the mountains has created a precarious environment this year. Because of variable weather—stretches of both cool and warm weather—runoff is coming down from the mountains in spurts, meaning the water levels in rivers fluctuate widely on a daily basis.
“It’s a hard thing for people,” says Pat Caulfield, vice president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Board. “One day they look at river flows and they’re low, the next day they’re thundering again.”
Plus, because there is so much remaining snowpack from the winter, water temperatures are lower this year than normal for early July—a factor Rice says can also be a killer once someone falls into the water. Compounding the fast and cold water, Caulfield says river banks are often unstable and excess debris in the water could make survival more complicated. For these reasons, time is precious once someone falls into the water amidst dangerous conditions.
“A rescue in swift water is just like a rescue in an avalanche,” Caulfield says. “There’s going to be a time for a SAR team to respond, but really the people who are going to save you if you go in the water are the people you’re there with.”
Therefore, both Caulfield and Rice recommend wearing personal flotation devices at all times and only going near rivers with people who have an advanced understanding of water flows and are trained in SAR (search and rescue)—like commercial rafting or fishing guides.
“Unless you’re a pro,” Rice says, “Stay out of the rivers right now.”
The exact number of drownings each year in Colorado is hard to know, according to Caulfield. SAR response can be handled by a number of different agencies, he says, though county sheriffs typically take the lead and are often assisted by fire departments and volunteers. Because SAR response varies by incident, no comprehensive record-keeping system exists for the number of swift-water fatalities statewide.
Meanwhile in Creede, five days after he went missing on the Rio Grande, the search for Zack Jones continues. A spokesperson for the Mineral County Sheriff’s Department says SAR personnel are still dragging the river, which was reopened to boaters on June 30. Drones and other aircraft are aiding the effort, but so far have found no sign of him—a sobering reminder that, as the holiday weekend approaches, rivers in Colorado are powerful, dangerous, and unpredictable.
“A river can kill you any time, even in low water,” Rice says. “But there’s so much more likelihood of that in high water.”