A study my firm published in 2012, Economic Contributions of Outdoor Recreation on the Colorado River & Its Tributaries (commissioned by Protect the Flows, a business association), shows that $26 billion in economic output is generated by 5.36 million adults who use the Colorado River and its tributaries for recreational activities each year.
Recreation along the Colorado River, either on the water directly or along the banks, is a major source of economic stimulus for the Rocky Mountain region. In six of the states that make up the Colorado River and its tributaries – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – nearly 4 out of ten adults (38.9%) use the river at least once a year for recreational purposes. Overall, 5,633,280 people over the age of 18 are estimated to use the river annually for recreation. In total, recreational activity along the river generates $17.0 billion in retail sales.

These expenditures then stimulate jobs, tax revenues and other benefits for the state and regional economies. This economic activity supports 234,000 jobs. Business activity resulting from Colorado River-oriented recreation generated more than $1.6 billion in federal taxes annually and an additional $1.6 billion in state and local tax revenues. Without healthy snowpack and healthy rivers, these states may suffer the economic consequences.
As part of our research, Southwick Associates developed and refined a telephone survey of residents in the six-state region in collaboration with DJ Case and Delve Research. Respondents were asked the extent to which their outdoor recreational activity would be affected if the Colorado River and its tributaries were not available. The plurality of respondents in all states and the region answered that their outdoor activity would be affected a “great amount,” and majorities or near-majorities said their outdoor recreation would be affected at least a “moderate amount.” Across the region, 57.3 percent of residents reporting their participation would be affected by a “great amount” or by a “moderate amount.”
Protect the Flows and other groups have pointed to the need to address climate change and water shortages through strategies that prioritize water conservation in urban and agricultural settings. As an economist, I can only underscore the data that points to the value of these resources to their communities -- on and below the mountains.
Southwick is president of Southwick Associates, Inc., a consulting firm on wildlife economics and outdoor business trends.