Ada County expects to salvage a Boise River float season this summer — but you may have to wait until late July to throw your raft in the river.
The float season, which traditionally opens around the first day of summer, didn’t begin until July 15 in 2011. The season ends Labor Day.
“We’ll definitely challenge the latest opening on record,” said Scott Koberg, the director of Ada County Parks and Waterways. “I’m not really sure if we’ll be able to open before then or not, what kind of debris is in the river. There’s just so many unknowns.”
That needs to drop to 1,500 cfs for floating season. Prime floating flow is about 1,250.
Connie Zeller — who with her husband, Steve, owns the business that handles the float season concessions at Barber Park — tracked snowfall through the winter and expected a late start this year. Ada County and the Zellers, who operate as Boise River Raft & Tube Rentals, are working on a new contract that will cover the possibility of a significantly shorter season.
The novice float from Barber Park to Ann Morrison Park is a summer tradition that packs the river on hot, summer weekends.
“We’ve done it long enough,” said Zeller, who is entering her 10th season with the contract, “that we recognize there are factors out of our control and our job is to be as prepared as we can be.”
The financial impact of a shorter season will affect the Zellers and the county. Float season is the No. 1 source of revenue for Ada County Parks and Waterways. Float season, in fact, pays a larger share of the department’s budget than general property taxes, Koberg said.
Parks and Waterways plans are based on a typical float season. In a good year, surplus revenue is used for projects like the improvements made to the Greenbelt last fall along Warm Springs Avenue. In a bad year, the staff looks for ways to trim costs.
Parks and Waterways has a $1.2 million budget for fiscal 2017 with projected revenue of about $570,000, including the float contract. Some of the properties managed by the department include the eastern end of the Boise River Greenbelt, Barber Park (and its Education & Event Center), Hubbard Reservoir Recreation Area, the Oregon Trail trailhead and 100 dock strings at 16 recreation sites throughout Lucky Peak Lake. Plus, the county is a partner in the Ridge to Rivers trail system and the Ada/Eagle Bike Park.
“It’s going to hurt us,” Koberg said, “but we’ll get through it. We’re looking at every budget line to see where we can be as resourceful as possible. The bottom line is our staff is working ridiculously hard ... to try to reduce the potential impacts down the road from this budget situation.”
Worse than the revenue loss, he said, likely will be the repairs needed when the water recedes — a problem for parks departments across the Treasure Valley. Not far from Koberg’s office, sandbags have been placed along the river bank in Barber Park.
“We have a lot of repairs that we know will need to occur with the flooding along the Greenbelt properties and in Barber Park,” he said. “We don’t know how much that’s going to be.”
For floaters and for Koberg’s crew, answers to their questions slowly will be revealed when the river begins to drop to normal summer flows. Each time the river drops, Koberg expects to find new challenges. Once the river begins to approach 1,500 cfs, Parks and Waterways will hold a meeting to determine what needs to be done to make the river safe for floaters. The Boise Fire Department’s dive and rescue crew helps remove hazards.
Only then will the county have a reasonable estimate for opening day.
“I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing going on in the reservoirs,” Koberg said. “For so long there, the last three months, all I was thinking was, ‘This is going to be horrible. It’s going to be terrible. We may not even open.’ Now ... I wonder if it’s going to be as bad as we thought, or if ultimately things could work out OK.”
Still, he’s not as optimistic as one person who visited Barber Park on May 19.
“We had an individual walk right into our office, and it’s flooded (outside), and ask us why the float rentals weren’t open,” Koberg said. “... And it will probably continue to happen.”
Floating, after all, is one of the most popular summer activities in Boise. It’s where residents take their out-of-town visitors and often where other tourists flock.
“It’s something people look forward to and they love to do,” Zeller said. “We have a lot of repeat customers. They figure out the time on the river and the cost and it’s a relatively inexpensive activity.”
Boise River Raft & Tube Rentals manages equipment rentals and the shuttle service between Barber Park and the takeout at Ann Morrison Park. Ada County retains control of the Barber Park parking fees.
The Zellers employ about 30 people for the summer, including shuttle bus drivers, college students and high school kids. The employees also will be affected by a shorter season, but in the 2011 season all of the workers stuck with their jobs, Zeller said.
“We do have generally a really good return rate for our staff,” she said. “I’m hopeful that they’ll stick around and be ready to go.”
Zeller, who is the director of a charter school in Elko, Nev., the rest of the year, starts employee interviews in February each year and does most of them at Barber Park, so she has taken a firsthand look at the high flows.
“We were having conversations like this back in January, February,” she said. “We knew it was going to be like this.”
Now she’s planning for what could be some hectic days once the season does start.
“Last time we went through this, we definitely had busy days where people were quite determined to get their float times in,” she said. “One way or another, they seem to fit it in.”
Boise River remains a danger
As kids begin to get out of school, Ada County Parks and Waterways Director Scott Koberg wants to remind parents of the danger of the Boise River’s high flows.
“The river is not a friendly river,” Koberg said. “It’s not approachable. It’s dangerous. It’s really important that the kids in the community get that message from every possible source: ‘No, it’s not time to float the river. We will let you know. ... Go find somewhere else to cool off.’ ”