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Tubers trying to stay afloat amid Central Texas drought

Farzad Mashhood

The Guadalupe River was trickling along as Dan Ricci had to drag his daughter's inner tube over a shallow rock. When they got over, Ricci and 10-year-old Crista got back in their rubber tubes and slowly floated with the river just downstream from the Canyon Dam.

Families like the Ricci's don't seem to mind the unseasonably slow flow of the upper part of the Guadalupe River, where every week thousands of tourists and locals go tubing. The slow water, tubers said, is an easier ride for young children and first-timers.

Record low rainfall since October has left most of Texas in an exceptional drought, and popular tubing spots such as the lower Guadalupe River have seen a drop in business because of the slow-moving river. Meanwhile, spring-fed rivers such as the Comal and San Marcos rivers are being overrun on weekends as people flock to them for a more exciting float. Spring-fed rivers are less dependent on rain as springs draw water from the underground aquifer.

"Business has dropped off," said Kevin Martin, manager of River Sports Tubes on the Guadalupe River in Canyon Lake. "But we'll take a drought year over a flood year any year."

The drought may be slowing down business — by noon on a Thursday, Martin had only eight groups come in — but in a flood, the river has to be closed and outfitters would have to shut their doors.

Jose Concha, on vacation with his family from St. Augustine, Fla., said he was tubing for the second time this week and has been "enjoying the heck out of it," despite having to walk at times.

River Sports Tubes is one of eight outfitters just downstream from Canyon Dam, where the water is flowing at 55 cubic feet per second. Outfitters say a flow rate of between 200 and 300 cubic feet per second is ideal. Farther downstream in New Braunfels, the Guadalupe is flowing slightly faster at 62 cubic feet per second.

Outfitters on the Comal are being "slammed" on the weekends, said Mark Gonzalez, a driver for Texas Tubes in New Braunfels, which is having to use its overflow parking lot across the street. The city started staggering times when people can enter the river, instituting a controlled access point at the Solms Park entrance to the Comal.

Outfitters on the Guadalupe say many people have been calling to ask about the conditions, mistakenly thinking the river is closed.

"People are saying, 'I wish it rained,' and we do, too," said Al Zator, owner of Little Ponderosa in Canyon Lake. "In the meantime, we're just cruising along, the best we can. ... This is not one of the better years."

Zator, who has been running his outfitter for 20 years, said the only time he remembers closing the river because it was too dry was once in 1996.

Many parts of the Guadalupe have exposed rocks, making tubers like the Ricci family walk. People were even using their sandals to paddle downstream.

"Because it's low, you're scraping your butt on the rocks," Martin said, adding that his outfitter tied hard plastic bottoms to the tubes.

"Because it's slow \u2026 you have to do a little bit of paddling," he said.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service is not predicting any rain in the next week, so stream flows aren't expect to change.

"This kind of deal is like farming and ranching," Zator said, noting that business rises and falls with the rains.

fmashhood@statesman.com; 445-3972