Colorado River Management Plan 8 Year Review of Issues: 2014 Activity

In November of 2013, officials at Grand Canyon National Park (GRCA) released an eight year review of how the Park's do-it-yourself river running lottery permitting system is preforming. This lottery is now used for obtaining a self-guided river permit and was implemented after a complete overhaul of the self-guided river runners permit system in 2006. To see the entire five and eight year reviews, click here and click on the links to the guides.

Unlike the five year review, the eight year review does not show how many successful lottery winners were awarded the date of their first choice launch date. The five year review showed that while 50% of lottery applicant winners received their first choice launch date, 50% of lottery winners were awarded their second to fifth choice of launch dates.

Not mentioned in either report is that since 2007, Grand Canyon National Park has collected over $4,380,000 in do-it-yourself river runners permit fees and an additional $715,000 in main lottery application fees alone, for a total of over $5,000,000 in six years.

Missing from both the five and eight year review was information on lottery applicant success to loss ratios. According to information available elsewhere in the GRCA web site, the Park has handled almost 19,500 lottery applications for just under 2,000 river permits released in the six main lotteries from 2007 through 2012. Projections still indicate lottery applicant chances of actually winning a permit are about once every 25 years.

The 2006 permitting system greatly increased the number of available off season permits. The eight year review, like the five year review, continues to show that off season permits are not being utilized as Park officials had hoped. The eight year review shows that GRCA projections overshot actual passenger counts during the months of November through February by roughly 50%.

Data available elsewhere on the GRCA web site also shows that oar powered concessions river trips have exceeded the 2006 river management plan projections by 81 trips in the 2008 through 2012 seasons, while the do-it-yourself river runners have fallen short by 151 trips during the same time period. Park officials offer no information on the reasons behind these unclaimed do-it-yourself launch dates. There are no recommendations on how to make changes to the do-it-yourself lottery regulations to help these trips launch.

In an attempt to make winter river trips more attractive to paddlers, for the last six years River Runners for Wilderness (RRFW), a non-profit river runner's advocacy group, has been asking the NPS to return the winter trip lengths to 30 days from the 25 days allowed since 2006. RRFW has also called for the elimination of the one-trip-per-year rule for winter river runners. RRFW was recently joined by other river running groups asking for the lifting of the one trip limit in the winter. Park officials did not even consider these recommendations in their list of possible changes to the river permit system. Another recommendation offered by Park officials is to increase lottery points for river trips listing a backup permit holder. According to information in the eight year review, only 18% of do-it-yourself river trips list a back-up trip leader. The Park offers no information on how many river trips cancel per year because the permit holder did not identify an alternate trip leader.

Of importance to river runners is that Park officials are proposing changing trip lengths in the eight year review.

The proposed change in trip lengths was based on presenting one year's worth of data showing that for four days in the spring, the number of river trips in the 226 miles of canyon between Lee's Ferry and Diamond Creek exceeds 60 trips, reaching up to 64 trips for two consecutive days. The 2006 Colorado River Management Plan identified a target cieling of 60 river trips, called Trips At One Time or TAOT's. The NPS recommendation suggested decreasing river trip lengths from 21 to 18 days from April 15 to April 30, with an increase to self-guided trip lengths from 18 to 21 days from September 15 to September 30. No consideration is given to changing the length of concessions trips or the number of concessions trips launched per day to adjust for TAOT overruns.

In December of 2013, River Runners For Wilderness wrote GRCA with a number of concerns about the large number of unclaimed winter river trips and about the Park's proposal to shorten river trips in April. In order to get a better understanding of the issues, River Runners wrote GRCA requesting copies of all correspondence regarding the issue of campsite competition. RRFW also asked for information on the number of trips in the Lee's Ferry to Diamond Creek section of the Grand Canyon since 2007. You can see a copy of that letter here.

Five months after requesting the above information, GRCA sent two replies and information on the number of trips in the canyon at one time. We thought we would share with you the responses we received.

One reply contained copies of all three pieces of correspondence the NPS received regarding the issue of campsite competition. The first correspondence is a series of letters involving a complaint about a motor trip taking a self guided trip's intended camp at Granite Park on April 11, well outside the two weeks when NPS identified Trips At One Time exceeding 60.  In the TAOT data provided, the TAOT target threshold of 60 was never exceeded in the month of April. The second correspondence is an e-mail asking the NPS to not shorten trip lengths in April.  The third is a series of correspondence between NPS Permits Manager Steve Sullivan and an individual, correspondence written after RRFW sent the NPS a letter requesting all correspondence on campsite competition. You can see all three pieces of correspondence here.

Grand Canyon National Park sent River Runners for Wilderness partial data on how many river trips are in the Lee's Ferry to Diamond Creek section of the Grand Canyon at any one time since 2007.That information is available here. The TAOT data for the last 8 years provided by GRCA was lacking the river concessions launch numbers for the summers of 2008 and 2009. No explanation was given as to why these two years’ worth of data are absent.

A review of the TAOT numbers show the desired ceiling of 60 trips at one time between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek were exceeded multiple times throughout the summer months, not just in the second half of April as identified by the NPS 8 year review. In the five years of data provided, TAOT levels were exceeded a total of 58 days in the months of May, June July and September. Only 28 days of the 58 days exceeding 60 TAOT are in the target time of May 1 to May 15 when the NPS proposes to shorten self guided river trip lengths.

Of note in this TAOT data is what it also shows about the lack of launching the allowed number of winter trips. If all trips launch in November, December, January, and February every day, with a launch limit of 1 trip per day, there should be a minimum of 24 TAOT between Lee’s Ferry and Diamond Creek every day of these four months. This target TAOT has not been met during any of the 7 years of available data, with a shortfall of TAOT’s of between 82 and 120 days each year. The smallest TAOT is 6 in January of 2013, showing a deficit of 18 trips on that day.   

Park officials also sent a reply with information on the use of potential alternate trip leaders. After first beginning to track how many river runners used an alternate trip leader in 2013, the data provided shows that apart from the first month this data was tracked, 5% or less of each month’s trips use the PATL option. You can see this correspondence here.

While River Runners for Wilderness had hoped the Park would make the winter trips more attractive by returning to the pre-2006 trip lengths of 30 days and eliminating the one-trip-per-year rule in the winter, the Park replied that all the winter trips are claimed at least once in the initial Main lottery or in a follow up lottery. The NPS also stated the winter trips do not fill as a result of being cancelled within 30 days of launch, and states the NPS is “therefore focused on exploring methods for reducing cancellations, encouraging more timely cancellations and expediting the advertisement and re-release of cancelled dates in follow up lotteries. The NPS also believes that cancellations may be reduced by increasing flexibility and encouraging trip applicants to list Potential Alternate Trip Leaders (PATL)."

In their reply, the NPS still refuses to reconsider changes they once were willing to embrace, that of making the winter river trips more attractive by returning to earlier trip lengths and by removing the one trip per year rule in the off season. Both these suggestions are intended to make the winter trips more desirable as a mechanism to decrease last minute cancelations. The NPS does not provide any data to support their belief that cancellations “may be reduced” by encouraging trip applicants to list Potential Alternate Trip Leaders.

River Runners For Wilderness encourages all interested individuals to write the Park directly with your concerns about these issues. We encourage you to include copying your Congressional Representative in your letter as a way to increase your chances of receiving a reply to your concerns.

The latest River Runners For Wilderness letter to Grand Canyon National Park, sent June 30, 2015, regarding the Colorado River Management Plan is here.