Surfing in Colorado Rivers Before the Waves Disappear

Roo Smith (June 5, 2024)—


As an ocean surfer who has found a deep spiritual connection with water, transitioning to river surfing in the landlocked state of Colorado has provided me with so much joy. This journey not only connects me to some beautiful endless river surfing waves but has also highlights the urgent need for water conservation to sustain these incredible recreational opportunities.

Watch the short film here:


My Spiritual Connection to Water

My love for surfing began with the ocean, where I learned patience, joy, and a profound respect for nature. Waiting for the perfect wave taught me to appreciate the rhythm and cycles of the natural world. Being out in the ocean, surrounded by the vastness of water, has always felt like a spiritual experience. It’s a place where I can connect deeply with myself and the environment.

However, living in Colorado, far from any coastline, posed a challenge to that inherent connection I’ve had to water since I was a kid growing up on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington State. Soon after moving to the rocky mountains, I longed for that same connection with water that surfing in the ocean had given me. It was then, in the fall of 2017, that I discovered river surfing. At first, it seemed like a poor substitute for the ocean waves I loved, but I quickly realized that the rivers of Colorado could offer a similar, if not unique, spiritual connection.

Photo by Danny Rodriguez


River surfing has become my outlet to maintain not just my surfing skills but my excitement in water sports. Despite being far from the ocean, I can still find the joy and exhilaration of surfing in the rivers of Colorado. The rush of the water, the thrill of catching a wave, and the meditative state that comes with being in tune with the flow of the river all contribute to a deeply fulfilling experience. In many ways, river surfing has provided a new dimension to my relationship with water, blending the excitement of the sport with a profound appreciation for the natural environment.

As I stand on the riverbank, preparing to paddle out, I often reflect on the journey that the water has taken to get here. From the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies, through winding mountain streams, and finally into the river where I surf, each drop of water carries with it the story of the landscape. This connection between the mountains and the rivers is essential not only for recreation but also for the health of the entire ecosystem.

The Surfing Journey from Mountain Peaks to River Waves

Photo by Danny Rodriguez

River surfing in Colorado starts in the mountains, where snowmelt feeds into the rivers, creating the waves necessary for surfing. The health of these river systems relies heavily on the snowpacks that accumulate during the winter. As the snow melts in the spring, it fuels the rivers, making river surfing possible.

The journey of water from mountain peaks to river waves is a fascinating process that highlights the interconnectedness of nature. It begins at the top of the Rocky Mountains, where snow accumulates during the winter months. These snowpacks act as natural reservoirs, storing water until the warmer temperatures of spring and summer cause the snow to melt. This meltwater flows into streams and tributaries, eventually feeding into larger rivers.


When the snow melts too quickly due to rising temperatures, it can lead to a rapid increase in river flow, which might be too much for ideal surfing conditions. It also might melt all the snow at once, ending the river surfing season earlier since there won’t be a constant trickle of water into the later summer months.

Conversely, if the snowpack is low, there may not be enough water to sustain the flow needed for good waves throughout the season. This delicate balance is increasingly threatened by the impacts of climate change, which are causing shifts in snowfall patterns and melting rates.


When I caught up with the Colorado Water Trust to chat about this issue, they put it simply – “Climate change is causing summers to be hotter and drier than they’ve been in the past, and winters are seeing less snowfall or quicker melts.” This creates significant challenges for maintaining the flow needed for river surfing and the overall health of the river ecosystems.

The rivers that provide these recreational opportunities also support a diverse array of wildlife and plant species. Fish, insects, and aquatic plants rely on consistent water flow and quality to thrive. As river surfers, we are not just enjoying a sport; we are also engaging with an ecosystem that supports life and biodiversity. This awareness adds a layer of responsibility to our activities, reminding us that our enjoyment of the rivers depends on their health and sustainability.

Understanding the journey of water from the mountains to the rivers deepens our appreciation for the natural processes that make river surfing possible. It also underscores the importance of conservation efforts to protect these vital resources. As river surfers, we must advocate for sustainable practices that ensure the health and longevity of our rivers.

The Threat of Declining Water Levels

Climate change is significantly impacting Colorado’s water levels. Warmer temperatures and reduced snowfall are leading to quicker snowmelt and less water in the rivers. This not only threatens river surfing but also affects the entire ecosystem.

Photo by Danny Rodriguez

The effects of climate change on Colorado’s water resources are becoming increasingly evident. As summers grow hotter and drier, the amount of water available in the rivers is decreasing. This trend is compounded by the fact that winters are also changing. Warmer winter temperatures can mean less snowfall and earlier snowmelt, which results in a reduced flow of water into the rivers during the critical summer months.


One of the most immediate impacts of declining water levels is on recreational activities such as river surfing, kayaking, and rafting. When there is less water in the rivers, the waves that us surfers rely on can become less consistent and more difficult to find. This not only reduces the opportunities for enjoyment but also affects the communities that have built economies around river recreation. Towns like Salida, which have invested in creating whitewater parks and related infrastructure, face economic risks if water levels continue to decline. Salida isn’t the only town like this. There are whitewater parks all over Colorado, including (but not limited to) Durango, Boulder, Gunnison, Vail, Pueblo, Buena Vista, Denver, Golden and Montrose.

The implications of reduced water flow extend beyond recreation.

Rivers with low water levels are also at risk of increased temperatures, which can be detrimental to fish and other aquatic life. When rivers dry up or become fragmented, it can lead to isolated pools where fish become stranded, disrupting their life cycles and reducing biodiversity. Additionally, the reduced flow affects the overall health of the river ecosystems. Aquatic plants and insects that rely on a steady flow of water can suffer, leading to a cascade of negative effects throughout the food web. The health of riparian zones, which are critical for preventing erosion and maintaining water quality, is also compromised when water levels drop.

In the face of these challenges, it is essential to find ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change on our water resources. This involves both local conservation efforts and broader initiatives to address the root causes of climate change. It also requires a commitment to sustainable water management practices that can help maintain the flow and quality of water in our rivers.

Photo by Danny Rodriguez


One example of such efforts is the work being done by the Colorado Water Trust. By adding water back into rivers and managing water resources more effectively, they are helping to ensure that these ecosystems can continue to support both recreational activities and biodiversity. Their innovative approaches, such as split season irrigation, demonstrate how adaptive management strategies can help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“Adapting is a good way to think about it. Like, I don’t think any one of our projects is going to totally counteract climate change, but it’s about how can we adapt to it,” says the Tony LaGreca, the Stewardship Manager at Colorado Water Trust. This perspective highlights the importance of flexibility and innovation in addressing the challenges posed by a changing climate.

As river surfers and outdoor enthusiasts, it is our responsibility to support these conservation efforts and advocate for policies that protect our water resources. By doing so, we can help ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy the rivers and the recreational opportunities they provide.

Photo by Danny Rodriguez

Introducing the Colorado Water Trust

Photo by Unsplash

To understand the efforts being made to combat these issues, I interviewed Barrett Donovan and Tony LaGreca from the Colorado Water Trust. Their work is focused on adding water back into Colorado’s rivers, which is crucial for both the environment and recreational activities.

The Colorado Water Trust is a small nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health of Colorado’s rivers by restoring and protecting water flows. Their motto, “just add water,” encapsulates their mission to put more water back into the rivers, benefiting both the environment and local communities. This simple yet powerful approach addresses the complex challenges posed by climate change and water scarcity.


As Barrett Donovan explains, “We work all throughout the state putting water back into rivers. Our tagline is just add water. It’s pretty simple. We believe that more water in rivers is really good for communities and the environment.” This belief underscores their commitment to enhancing river ecosystems and supporting recreational activities that rely on healthy water flows.

Photo by Unsplash

The Colorado Water Trust operates various projects across the state, focusing on areas where water is most needed. They work with water rights owners to lease or purchase water, ensuring that it remains in the rivers during critical periods. This helps maintain river flows, supporting aquatic life and recreational opportunities like river surfing, fishing, and kayaking.


One of the innovative approaches employed by the Colorado Water Trust is split season irrigation. This method involves allowing irrigation early in the season and then reducing or halting it when the river needs water the most, typically during the hottest and driest periods. This adaptive management strategy helps balance the needs of agriculture with the requirements of maintaining healthy river flows.

Tony LeGreca explained, “It’s specifically timed to shut off irrigation at a certain point when the river historically has its lowest points, and then resume irrigation later on when the monsoon kicks in and other irrigators have stopped diverting water.”

By focusing on specific projects and collaborating with local communities, the Colorado Water Trust can make a tangible impact on river health. Their efforts demonstrate that targeted, well-managed interventions can help mitigate the effects of climate change and support both environmental and recreational needs.

Understanding Instream Flow

Photo by Danny Rodriguez

Instream flow refers to the water flowing through rivers, which is essential for maintaining ecological balance and supporting recreational activities. Colorado law now recognizes instream flow as a valid use of water, which is a significant step forward in water conservation.

“Instream flow is water for the environment, which is now recognized as a viable use,” explains Tony LeGreca from the Colorado Water Trust. This legal recognition is crucial for the protection of river ecosystems and the various species that depend on them.


In Colorado, water rights are typically allocated for specific uses, such as agricultural, industrial, or municipal purposes. However, in the 1970s, the state began to recognize the importance of maintaining water in rivers for environmental and recreational purposes. This led to the establishment of instream flow rights, which are managed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB).

Instream flow rights are designed to ensure that there is enough water flowing in rivers to support fish, wildlife, and recreational activities. These rights are critical for maintaining the ecological health of rivers, preventing them from drying up or becoming fragmented, which can have devastating effects on aquatic life.

Photo by Unsplash


“Having water in the rivers is essential for fish, aquatic species, bugs, and plants. If you have a dried-up river, not much is going to live there,” emphasizes Barrett Donovan, the Development and Engagement Manager at the Colorado Water Trust. This highlights the fundamental role of instream flow in supporting biodiversity and ecosystem health.

The Colorado Water Trust works closely with the CWCB and other partners to identify and protect instream flow needs. They collaborate with water rights owners to lease or acquire water rights, ensuring that water remains in the rivers during critical periods. This collaborative approach helps balance the needs of different water users while prioritizing the health of river ecosystems.

In addition to supporting environmental health, instream flow is also vital for recreational activities.

Rivers with adequate flow provide opportunities for surfing, kayaking, fishing, and other water-based activities. These recreational opportunities are not only important for local communities but also contribute to the economy through tourism and outdoor recreation industries.

Photo by Danny Rodriguez

The Role of River Recreation in Conservation

Photo by Danny Rodriguez

Recreational activities like river surfing help build communities that value and advocate for healthy rivers. This communal engagement can influence water conservation policies and ensure that recreational opportunities are preserved.

“Recreation in rivers gets people to care about rivers. This connection helps advocate for river health and influences conservation efforts,” says Barrett Donovan. This connection between recreation and conservation is essential for building a broad base of support for water protection efforts.


When people engage in recreational activities on rivers, they develop a personal connection to these natural resources. This connection fosters a sense of stewardship and a desire to protect the rivers for future generations. Whether it’s catching a wave on a river surfboard, paddling a kayak, or casting a fishing line, these experiences create lasting memories and a deep appreciation for the beauty and value of rivers.

Communities that rely on river-based recreation often become advocates for water conservation policies. They understand that healthy rivers are essential for their recreational activities and the overall well-being of their community. This advocacy can influence local and state governments to prioritize water protection measures, ensuring that rivers remain vibrant and accessible.

Photo by Me, Roo Smith


In many cases, recreational groups such as kayaking clubs, fishing organizations, and river surfing communities partner with conservation organizations to support river health initiatives.

These partnerships can provide valuable resources, volunteers, and funding for projects that restore and protect river ecosystems. By working together, recreational and conservation groups can amplify their impact and achieve common goals.


The economic benefits of river-based recreation also play a significant role in conservation efforts. Towns and cities that invest in recreational infrastructure, such as river parks and water access points, often see a boost in tourism and local business. This economic incentive further encourages communities to support water conservation measures, as they recognize the direct link between healthy rivers and economic prosperity.

For example, the town of Salida has invested significantly in creating river surfing parks and supporting local businesses that cater to river recreation enthusiasts. These investments have not only enhanced the town’s recreational offerings but also strengthened its economy and community spirit. As more people come to enjoy the river, they also become more invested in its protection.

Innovative Solutions and Hope for the Future

The Colorado Water Trust employs various strategies to manage water resources effectively. One such approach is split season irrigation, which allows for strategic use of water to benefit both agriculture and river ecosystems.

Photo by Unsplash

“We allow irrigation early in the season and then dial back when the river needs it most. This helps maintain river flow during critical periods,” explains Tony LaGreca. This adaptive management strategy is an example of how innovative solutions can address the complex challenges of water conservation.

Split season irrigation involves coordinating with agricultural water users to adjust their irrigation schedules. During the early part of the growing season, when river flows are typically higher, farmers can use water for their crops. As the season progresses and river flows decrease, the farmers reduce or halt their irrigation, allowing more water to remain in the river during critical low-flow periods.


This approach benefits both agriculture and the environment. Farmers can still access the water they need for their crops, while rivers receive the necessary flow to support aquatic life and recreational activities. This balance is achieved through careful planning and collaboration between water users, conservation organizations, and government agencies.

Photo by Danny Rodriguez

Another innovative solution is the use of water leasing and trading programs. These programs allow water rights holders to temporarily lease their water to the Colorado Water Trust, ensuring that it remains in the river during critical periods. This flexible approach provides a mechanism for adapting to changing water conditions and supporting river health. “Instream flow is water for the environment, which is now recognized as a viable use,” explains the Colorado Water Trust. This legal recognition is crucial for the protection of river ecosystems and the various species that depend on them.


In addition to split season irrigation and water leasing, the Colorado Water Trust also engages in habitat restoration projects. These projects focus on improving the physical condition of river habitats, such as restoring riverbanks, removing barriers to fish migration, and enhancing in-stream structures to create better conditions for aquatic life.By combining these strategies, the Colorado Water Trust is able to address multiple aspects of river health and water management. Their comprehensive approach demonstrates that it is possible to find solutions that benefit both people and the environment.

Despite the challenges posed by climate change and water scarcity, there is reason for hope. The work being done by the Colorado Water Trust and similar organizations shows that effective water management and conservation are achievable. By continuing to innovate and adapt, we can protect our rivers and ensure that they remain healthy and vibrant for future generations.

As river surfers and outdoor enthusiasts, it is our responsibility to support these conservation efforts and advocate for policies that protect our water resources. By doing so, we can help ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy the rivers and the recreational opportunities they provide.

Personal Reflections and Call to Action

Photo by Danny Rodriguez

Reflecting on my experience of going to Salida to surf and interview the Colorado Water Trust, I’m leaving feeling inspired by the efforts of organizations like the Colorado Water Trust. It’s essential for all of us to get involved in water conservation efforts to protect these precious resources for future generations.

“Go surf, go wade in your river, go fishing. The more people care about water flowing in rivers, the harder it is to ignore the importance of preserving these natural resources,” urges Barrett Donovan. This call to action underscores the importance of personal engagement in conservation efforts.


Each of us can play a role in protecting our rivers and ensuring that they continue to provide recreational opportunities and support diverse ecosystems. Whether it’s through volunteering with conservation organizations, supporting policies that promote sustainable water management, or simply being mindful of our own water use, every action counts.

One way to get involved is to educate yourself about local water issues and the organizations working to address them. Understanding where your water comes from and how it is managed can help you make informed decisions about water use and conservation. Many organizations, like the Colorado Water Trust, offer resources and opportunities for community members to get involved in their projects.


Another way to support water conservation is by advocating for policies that protect our rivers and water resources. This can involve participating in local government meetings, supporting legislation that promotes sustainable water management, and raising awareness about the importance of water conservation within your community.

“To be able to do something that is making a tangible difference, even if it’s on a smaller scale, gives me hope. It’s about finding one thing you’re passionate about and making a difference on that,” says Barrett Donovan. This personal approach to conservation can have a ripple effect, inspiring others to take action and contribute to the collective effort to protect our rivers.

Photo by Danny Rodriguez

The connection between river surfing and water conservation is profound. By supporting organizations like the Colorado Water Trust and getting involved in conservation efforts, we can ensure that the joy and spiritual connection we find in surfing and other water activities continue for generations to come.

Our rivers are more than just recreational spaces; they are lifelines for entire ecosystems and communities. Protecting them requires a collective effort, driven by passion, innovation, and collaboration. Together, we can create a future where our rivers flow freely, supporting life and providing joy to all who connect with their waters.
Author: Roo Smith
Read the original article here.