“Humorist Will Rogers, the story goes, once described the Rio Grande as “the only river I ever saw that needed irrigation.”. . . Yet as our flotilla meandered downstream past private ranch land and the Native-American-owned Santa Ana Pueblo, paddles occasionally tickling the Rio Grande’s soft bottom, the passing parade was anything but desolate.
“Snowy egrets and great blue herons minced along the willow-lined river banks, while a squadron of swallows wheeled close above the tea-green riffles of the gentle rapids.”
Laura Bly, National Geographic Intelligent Travel
Understanding Recreational River Flows on the Middle Rio Grande North of Albuquerque
Enjoyable recreation on the middle Rio Grande is available throughout the year, regardless of flows. Full stop.
Journalist Laura Bly joined us for an outing in June of 2013. The resulting article features several quotes from us addressing the prevalent misconceptions regarding the navigability of the Middle Rio Grande at lower flow conditions. Click on the link to read the whole thing.
To expand on our commentary in Laura's article, we were certainly affected by New Mexico's historic extended drought of 2010 through 2014. Not because there wasn't sufficient water in the river, but because public perceptions, fueled by extensive and alarmist coverage engaged in by the local news media in the summer of 2013 suggested that the Rio Grande was nearly dry. Perception is not reality, however, and this page now exists in order to educate our guests and the public in general as to how recreation is affected by varying flow levels, and what paddlers can anticipate at both higher and lower flows.
Kayakers near Algodones, July 18, 2013 - Flows at 173 cfs
We've fielded countless variations on the query “Is there enough water in the river?” since we opened, although it's not as commonplace as it one was. A detailed response to that question can be found at the FAQ's page, but given the irresponsibly inaccurate “news coverage” of 2013, it became obvious that someone needed to address reality as opposed to perceptions. Given that no one is more familiar with this particular stretch of the Rio Grande than we are, that someone might as well be us.
While it is true that river levels reached historical lows in the summer of 2013, it is also true that levels were almost continually at or near record low levels from the fall of 2010 until the spring of 2015, and we have yet to reach a point where there isn't sufficient depth to enjoy recreation on the Rio Grande north of Albuquerque. At the lowest levels we've seen yet (150 cubic feet/second(cfs)), the main channel varies from one to three feet deep, with occasional sandbars that are easily avoidable with basic river reading skills. In fact, paddling the Rio at lower flow levels seems to offer more visual interest to the river itself, as many sand and gravel bars - which are entirely submerged at higher levels - create numerous glittering cascades as the river meanders along.
The most significant factor that isn't grasped by the either the local population or local media is that the character of the river itself is dramatically different immediately north of the city (where we operate), as opposed to the reach through Albuquerque itself. From Cochiti dam to approximately 2 miles north of the Alameda Bridge at the northern city limits, the Rio Grande features a river channel that ranges from between 100' – 150' feet in width. This constricted channel translates to sufficient depth for watercraft that displace as little as canoes, kayaks and SUP's, even at extreme low flows..
Two miles north of Alameda Blvd, immediately south of the North Diversion Channel Outfall Sedimentation Basin (a flood control diversion construction), the river channel widens to over 450', and braids into multiple channels. These last two miles can be a challenging environment for paddlers at lower flows as the increased width leads to a shallower main channel, frequently as shallow as 6"" – 9”. Those inexperienced with reading shallow flood plain rivers may struggle in this section regardless of flow levels (we've seen folks have trouble in this section at flows of 2000 cfs!). Those with little experience reading braided rivers are strongly advised to join one of our guided trips to learn how to identify the deep water channel.
This wider, braided river channel continues throughout the City of Albuquerque, and thus is the section of the Rio Grande that most locals are familiar with as they pass over the bridges in the city. With a river channel often reaching over 600' in width, combined with the fact that the San Juan Diversion dam (immediately below the Alameda Bridge) removes a great deal of the river's incoming flow, the river within the city limits of ABQ may appear nearly dry at extreme low flows, yet the Rio immediately to the north still contains sufficient flows.
Of course, we recognize that many reading this will assume that despite what we have to say about the matter, higher flows are desirable. To that, we would answer - yes and no. At higher flows (spring runoff conditions - 2000 cfs or more), most sand and gravel bars are submerged, so shallow water is less of an issue. On the other hand, faster current speeds and the wider river channel does bring low hanging trees into play much of the way, and strainers or other hazards, while easier to avoid due to the additional width, are definitely more severe. Secondary channels also fill at higher flows, which can be fun to explore, but may also contain unknown hazards. More details on this can be found further down.
On to the data, and what it actually means for recreation. The primary river gauge we monitor (embedded below), is the Alameda Bridge gauge, the first gauge immediately downstream of the reach we operate on. The graph updates every fifteen minutes, so what you're seeing is basically in “real time”. Clicking the link below the embedded graph will open a new window, taking you to the USGS page with full data for the gauge:
Current Flow Conditions
Link: Full Alameda Gauge Data (Opens in New Window)
So what do these numbers mean for paddlers? River flows are measured in cubic feet per second (cfs), and a cubic foot of water is approximately 7.5 gallons. That means that at flows of 200 cfs (quite low), approximately 1500 gallons of water is flowing past the gauge every second, 500 cfs equates to 3750 gallons, 2000 cfs equates to 15,000 gallons and so on. Obviously, higher flows means deeper water, and since opening in early 2010 we've witnessed both record highs and lows, ranging from as little as 150 cfs, to over 6000 cfs. Higher flows simply means more depth, lower flows means less depth.
Every time we've seen a new low or high, we've ventured out to discover what effect varying flows have on recreation. We'll continue to do so as time goes on, but what follows is a dose of reality as to what to expect over a very wide range. Although New Mexico's extended drought certainly stressed the Rio Grande and its wildlife as flows declined, if there's a silver lining for paddlers, it's that we're yet to reach levels where the river is no longer navigable by paddlecraft. If it declines beyond the ranges shown above, we'll explore it again, and continue to do so until we arrive at a low limit, at which point we'll suspend operations until sufficient flows resume. It is highly unlikely that we'll reach that point however, as environmental and pueblo requirements virtually ensure sufficient flows for paddlers north of Albuquerque.
Disclaimer:This information is provided as an educational and informational guide only. All rivers can change dramatically with variations in flow, and the Middle Rio Grande is no exception. High flows can and do create countless unknown hazards, including collapsing trees and riverbanks, large floating debris, increased current speeds and challenging sections for inexperienced paddlers. Those with little experience should not rely on the following in any way, and we provide no warranties, assurances of safety or security, nor any other guarantees of any kind regarding any decisions made by any person or persons with regard to any use of the information provided below.
River Classifications from American Whitewater
*Class I Definition: Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. Few obstructions, all obvious and easily missed with little training. Risk to swimmers is slight; self-rescue is easy.
**Class II Definition: Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily missed by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed. Rapids that are at the upper end of this difficulty range are designated “Class II+”.
(Courtesy of Ron Watters, Idaho State University)
The river classification system developed by American Whitewater is an excellent system for whitewater boaters, but fails to adequately address the wide variations involved in “Class I” water the casual recreational paddler may encounter. Ron Watters of Idaho State University recognized this issue in a 1999 paper which presented a proposal to expand and more clearly define variations that can and do exist on Class I rivers. These definitions are highly applicable to the Middle Rio Grande, so we've chosen to adopt, share and apply them below. The full paper, which includes Professor Watters' recommendations for families, can be accessed by clicking the header above.
Class I (1.0) Flat, lake-like water. No current or very slow moving current. One can easily paddle upstream and downstream. . . . Since the water is slow moving, downriver trips against strong winds, may be taxing. . . . Inflatable boaters may find this water sluggish, requiring a lot of paddling to get downstream. (Some boaters might call this type of water class I- on the international scale.)
Class I (1.1) Flat water with some current. One can paddle upstream, but it takes more effort. Since it has current, it may have some minor eddies. . . . (Easy class I water.)
Class I (1.2) Flat water with current, minor riffles and some eddies. Paddling upstream is possible in some places, but in other places it may be very difficult or not possible at all. These rivers may have some overhanging trees and brush. . . . (Moderately easy class I.)
Class I+ (1.3) Moving water with mini-rapids. Small, mini-rapids may occur in swift areas of the river-or where the river slides down gravel bars. The river may have some swift corners with overhanging trees on the outside of bends. Rocks and boulders may be present which need to be avoided, but the current is gentle and not strong enough to cause a boat to get wrapped or broached.
Basic maneuvering skills are needed, including the ability to move to the right or left and avoid the outside of bends, and the ability to miss an occasional rock. Boaters should know the basics of an eddy turn and how to use an eddy to stop, as well as understanding the preliminaries of reading water. . . . (This is the beginning of class I+ water.)
Class I+ (1.4) Swift water with mini-rapids, small waves and obstructions. The river may bend sharply and the current on the outside of bends is more forceful. Such rivers may have narrow channels with long stretches of overhanging trees and brush in which a boat can get hung up and flipped over.
Canoeists and kayakers should have a good understanding of how to lean boats while in the current, or while turning in and out of eddies, or if accidentally pushed up against an obstruction. Boaters should be very comfortable maneuvering the boat through rocks and have the ability to catch small eddies. A sureness of technique is needed to stop quickly if fences, trees or diversions are encountered. . . . Note that some inflatable kayaks may be too sluggish to handle the type of maneuvering needed for this type of river. (This is difficult class I water, well into the class I+ range.)
Class I+ (1.5) Rapid water with small rapids, waves and obstructions. The river may be very narrow and have many sharp turns and long stretches of overhanging trees and brush. In higher flows, trees, log jams and other strainers are dangerous.
Some waves may be present which, if run sideways, can swamp a canoe. Improper leans in a canoe or kayak can cause a capsize. Boaters must have the ability to read the water, anticipate future moves and react quickly. A well-practiced, reliable eddy turn is a must.
Application of the Expanded Class I/Class I+ Rating System
150 – 300 cfs
The Coronado (Algodones to North Corrales): Class I (1.2) to Class I+ (1.3)
The Bosque (North Corrales to Alameda): Class I (1.0) to Class I (1.2), with exceptional shallow water river reading skills required.
Deep channel ranges from one to three feet in depth. Numerous sand and gravel bars are exposed, creating many small features of cascading water. Simple river-reading skills are helpful. Algodones to Corrales (“The Coronado”) easily navigable. Small rapids are shallow, rocky and active. Last two miles of Corrales to Alameda (“The Bosque”) very challenging due to wider, braided channel and requires exceptional shallow water river reading skills. The entire reach is Class I at these flows, with current speeds ranging from 2 to 5 miles per hour, but hazards do exist – sweepers, strainers and occasional obstructions are present at all flows.
300 – 700 cfs
The Coronado (Algodones to North Corrales): Class I (1.2) to Class I+ (1.3)
The Bosque (North Corrales to Alameda): Class I (1.0) to Class I (1.2), with excellent shallow water river reading skills required
3" – 6" of additional depth. Similar to above, although many sand and gravel bars are now submerged and require river reading skills to avoid grounding. “The Bosque” section a little easier with the additional depth, but still requires excellent shallow water river reading skills. Still Class I water, similar current speeds as above, but slightly more depth and width brings some additional hazards into play.
700 – 1200 cfs
The Coronado (Algodones to North Corrales): Class I (1.2) to Class I+ (1.5)
The Bosque (North Corrales to Alameda): Class I (1.0) to Class I+ (1.3), with some shallow water river reading skills required.
A fairly common flow range in normal precipitation years, the deep channel ranges from 18” - 4 ½'. “The Bosque” reach becomes significantly easier above 700 cfs, but good river reading skills are still required. Class I most of the way, but sections of Class I+ as current speeds climb to 3 – 6 mph at the upper end of this range, and hazards, especially those on the outside of some meander bends, require good boat control to avoid.
1200 – 2000 cfs
The Coronado (Algodones to North Corrales): Class I+ (1.3) to Class II
The Bosque (North Corrales to Alameda): Class I (1.0) to Class I+ (1.3)
Deep channel rarely less that 2'. Mostly Class I/I+ water, with short Class II sections that present few problems for trained paddlers but can be challenging for the inexperienced. Current quickens slightly (3 – 7 mph), and some secondary channels begin to fill. Small rapids begin to level out as flows elevate. Class I/II conditions and the additional width of the river channel brings numerous low hanging trees into play near shore.
2000 – 3000 cfs
The Coronado (Algodones to North Corrales): Class I+ (1.4) to Class II
The Bosque (North Corrales to Alameda): Class I (1.1) to Class I+ (1.4)
Common spring flow conditions in normal snowpack years, and occasionally seen following summer monsoon storms. Deep channel ranges from 3' – 7'. Numerous secondary channels begin to fill – many are navigable above 2500 cfs. Class I/II with current speeds of 4 – 8 mph, tree branches and other irregular debris is often observed floating downstream. The increased width and faster current resulting from higher flows brings low hanging trees near shore into play nearly continually in numerous sections.
Above 3000 cfs
The Coronado (Algodones to North Corrales): Class I+ (1.4) to Class II
The Bosque (North Corrales to Alameda): Class I (1.1) to Class I+ (1.5)
Deep channel rarely less than 5' in depth. All secondary channels are flowing, most are navigable, but may contain unknown hazards (downed trees and other obstructions). Class I+/II, and current is noticeably quicker, approaching 5 mph most of the way – tour times are significantly reduced. Large floating debris (even entire trees) may be present. Flows at these levels are relatively rare – usually a couple of weeks of peak spring flows in good runoff years, and occasionally seen following especially heavy monsoon downpours.