Water-related recreation pumps $18B into Colorado economy, business group says

As the outdoor recreation industry steers through the rapids of the coronavirus-era economy, a business group has released a report that puts the annual value of water-related recreation in Colorado at nearly $18 billion.

The report released Monday by Business for Water Stewardship said 6.7 million people participate in water-related recreation annually, supporting more than 131,000 direct and indirect jobs. That translates to $6.3 billion in household income and $2.7 billion in tax revenue, according to the analysis by Southwick Associates.

“The general message is the importance of rivers, waterways, to our economy,” said Molly Mugglestone, director of Colorado policy for the business organization. “We need to preserve and protect these areas that people want to go to and spend time on.”

The new report is similar to one the group released after first forming in 2011 that examined the economic benefits of recreation associated with waterways in six of the seven Colorado River Basin states. The organization says it has a network of about 1,400 businesses throughout the basin, with roughly 450 of those in Colorado.

“We were really trying to make sure we had some numbers behind our argument around the economic value of rivers to our state,” Mugglestone said.

The report relies on spending data collected by Southwick Associates for the Outdoor Industry Association and a survey that looked at where people recreated. The report includes responses from 1,252 people and targets such activities as swimming, rafting, kayaking and other sports on the water as well as trail running along the water, fishing and wildlife watching.

The report analyzes statewide data and date for nine river basins in the state.

“Rivers really define our state, our outdoor experiences. Lakes and waterways define our outdoor experiences,” Mugglestone said.

People seek out spots along rivers and waterways to watch wildlife, run on trails and have picnics, Mugglestone said. The idea was to try to quantify the economic benefits of being able to enjoy those experiences.

“This is important for us. We’re in the fishing industry, so being a headwater state is so vital to our economy,” said David Dragoo, the founder of Mayfly Outdoors.

The Montrose-based company designs, engineers and manufactures fishing equipment known around the world. Its brands include Ross Reels, Abel and Airflo.

The Business for Water Stewardship’s promotion of keeping waterways healthy is a big benefit for the outdoor industry, Dragoo said. “As an industry, we don’t really have any infrastructure, if you will. Our corporate infrastructure is our public lands and our waters.”

A recent report by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a trade organization, said an overwhelming majority of outdoor business nationwide have laid off or furloughed employees and suffered decreased sales and revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, businesses also said they’re starting to see increased sales of some products. State wildlife agencies have reported selling more fishing licenses, according to the roundtable, prompting hopes that outdoor recreation can help spur an economic recovery.

“Social distancing just really puts more emphasis on being outside and getting fresh air,” Dragoo said. “We’ve seen a huge uptick in late spring, early summer for business. I think many outdoor brands will see the same thing as long as there’s not a second wave” of the coronavirus.

Kelly Brough, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said Colorado’s beautiful rivers, “are a big part of what makes the state a great place to live and what draws people from around the world.

“This study shows how much our state’s economy depends on preserving our rivers. We must continue to protect our quality of life and keep our environment as a top priority.”

The business stewardship supports the goals in the Colorado Water Plan, a blueprint for meeting the state’s long-term water needs in the face of a growing population, climate change, wildfires and drought.

“We have this Colorado water plan and it’s excellent. It really highlights the need for planning around all waterways,” Mugglestone said.

But the budget calamities caused by the suppression of the economy during the pandemic will make it tough to come up with the $100 million per year needed to carry out the plan, Mugglestone said. If Colorado gets more federal money to help during the pandemic, the stewardship group is encouraging Gov. Jared Polis to use some of the aid for the water plan.

The report analyzes statewide data and date for nine river basins in the state.

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