DENVER -- Recreation on the Colorado River and its tributaries contributes about $17 billion in direct spending annually to the economies of six of the states that depend on its water, according to a study released Friday.
The report was commissioned by Protect the Flows, which represents small businesses such as fishing guides and others who rely on the Colorado River basin in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
The group supports cost-effective conservation and water efficiency so the overtaxed river can meet demands for water as the West grows.
Southwick Associates Inc. developed the report by first conducting a telephone survey of people in all Colorado River basin states except California from Jan. 24 to Feb. 12 to estimate how many people hike, fish, raft, camp, picnic or otherwise play on the river system and how often.
President Rob Southwick said California was excluded because only a small part of the state uses the river for recreation.
Then, researchers matched the survey results with data on spending on travel and equipment for outdoor activities to estimate economic impacts.
The study estimates that business activity from recreation focused on the river system supports about 234,000 jobs in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming and generates more than $1.6 billion in federal taxes annually and $1.6 billion in state and local tax revenues.
The figure of $17 billion in direct spending from river recreation would likely be higher if visits from outside the region were included, said Sarah Sidwell, manager of Tag-A-Long Expeditions in Moab, Utah. Sidwell said 40 percent of customers for her rafting and off-road business are international.
"Our stake in this is huge," Sidwell said of keeping the river system healthy. "We need to have a flowing river in order for me to have a job and 100 part-time employees to have jobs."
Rhett Bain, owner of Reel Deal Anglers in Jackson, Wyo., said a seasonal guide for his business earns about $30,000 in 90 days including tips.
"We're supporting jobs in an economy that has no jobs," he said.
By comparison, a 2006 study that Southwick conducted for the Outdoor Industry Foundation estimated outdoor recreation nationwide contributed $730 billion to the U.S. economy annually.
To put the $17 billion in spending in context, Southwick said the figure tops the annual revenue of some top companies, including General Mills Inc.
"It's tough to know the value of water until it's gone, but the Southwick report starts to put some good numbers on the economic effect of keeping water in our river," said U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat and former mountain guide.
The report comes as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reviews ideas for how to solve an imbalance in supply and demand in water on the Colorado River.
"Fundamentally, it's an asset we've got to find a way to preserve and protect," said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
Santana Garcia of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce said even businesses that don't depend directly on the Colorado River focus heavily on conserving water because businesses contribute to spending for reservoir projects.