As Arizona heads into spring and people head outdoors in the state’s rivers, lakes and streams, a study has shown that people having fun near water in the state creates more money for the state than the mining or golfing industries.
The study done by the National Audubon Society, an organization focused on bird and bird habitat protection, showed that outdoor activities like camping, trail sports, water sports and picnicking near water created $13.5 billion for the state’s economy over 2018. The income was calculated through expenditures like travel, gear, food and wages.
Policy Manager Haley Paul of the Audubon compared that number in her report to the total economic output that mining or golf contributed to the state — $10.2 and $3.9 billion respectively.
Paul said they compared the “booming” water recreation industry to mining and golfing because of the two industries' strong tie to Arizona's identity. She hoped the study would challenge people's understanding of how water is managed and regulated.
“You can’t just say birds are important, even though we know birds are important. You have to speak in a way that demonstrates the economics. Without that it’s hard to get people around your cause,” Paul said.
The largest contributors to outdoor water recreation economy in the state were trail sports, water sports and camping, according to the study. Water and trail sports each contributed more than $2 billion in economic output.
The study was based on participant responses and only focused on Arizona residents.
A "blockbuster" county
The study also broke down to the county level to show individual contributions to various regions. Paul called Coconino County a “blockbuster” county.
In Coconino County, she said camping was one of the largest areas of the water recreation industry, with over 194,000 campers in 2018. In total, they estimated that 17,400 jobs tied to outdoor water recreation existed in the county.
Despite visitation numbers, the most expensive outdoor water activity was trail sports, causing people to spend $450 million on trail gear in Coconino County alone.
According to the report, the county's highest visited bodies of water were Oak Creek, the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and Woods Canyon Lake. Oak Creek had the highest amount of visitation by Arizona residents, with 173,000 residents recreating near the creek.
The report shows how different counties are prized for different types of recreation. Yuma and Mohave had high amounts of picnicking and relaxing near water, while Cochise had a big turnout in wildlife watching.
“Someone who’s a fisherman may not think about going bird watching, but it’s cool to see how rivers protect all these different type of activities,” Paul said.
On the river
Canyon REO, a local water rafting company, has been operating in the rafting industry since 1991. Donnie Dove, co-owner of Canyon REO, said the report's conclusion was surprising but not shocking.
The company does river trips down rivers like the Colorado River and can carry 16 people for over 16 days through 225 to 280 miles of river. He listed multiple specialized items like boats, frames, methods for carrying large amounts of food, coolers, ice and kitchen supplies, which he said could run over a thousand dollars depending on the purchase.
"They're all fairly specialized for the Grand Canyon. So this outfitting a 16-person trip is something that you wouldn’t have in your garage," Dove said. "At that point it makes more sense — since you only get to go on river once a year — it makes sense to rent."
Dove said he believed that the Colorado had been well protected and cleaned, and that protecting rivers like the way the Colorado has been is paramount. He said many river guides who ride down the rivers pick up trash when they see it and keep human waste clean.
"The Grand Canyon is a pristine river and 20,000 people a year go through it," Donnie said. "When you launch through it and look around, it looks like nobody has been there. You are seeing it as it has been since John Wesley Powell."
Dove's son, Ben, who runs the company's marketing and logistics, said anyone can find a reason to protect waterways.
"This day in age, the environment and our place in it is constantly under discussion and scrutiny," Ben Dove said. "If you value environment, then you value waterways. No matter the ideology, the health of our waterways is an important aspect of that."