FARMINGTON — A National Water Trails System title could drive droves of tourists, thousands of dollars and greater attention to safe and sustainable rafting of the Four Corners' rivers, officials say.

"Sounds like a great idea," Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts said at a Tuesday Farmington City Council work session.

Aztec Mayor Sally Burbridge made a presentation to the city council and other city officials about the Four Corners Paddle Trails, a plan to boost the area's tourism by advertising the Animas and San Juan rivers to those who raft, canoe, inner tube, paddle board and kayak.

Errol Baade, with the Four Corners Paddle Trail group, stands near the Animas River at Riverside Park in Aztec on Tuesday.
Errol Baade, with the Four Corners Paddle Trail group, stands near the Animas River at Riverside Park in Aztec on Tuesday. (Jon Austria / The Daily Times)

Many area communities and groups, including Farmington, Aztec, Durango, Bloomfield, San Juan College, Four Corners Economic Development and the National Park Service, are joining to support the effort, according to Burbridge's presentation.

The work group, which meets monthly, is examining the 90-mile section of the Animas River that arcs from Bakers Bridge in Hermosa, Colo., to Kirtland. It's also considering the 45-mile stretch of the San Juan River that runs below the Navajo Reservoir to Kirtland.

Burbridge said the work group might apply for a National Water Trails System designation for the two sections of river. Many who have been involved in the discussions say the title could change a lot.

"These are the kind of projects that put us on the map," Councilor Dan Darnell said.

With a national title, the two rivers would appear on the Internet, which would allow visiting paddlers to more easily find them, said JD Tanner, San Juan College Coordinator of Outdoor Recreation. He said it would draw more tourists to the communities.

Many visiting paddlers would stay in hotels, eat at restaurants and shop at grocery stores, he said. And most won't just paddle, he said. Visitors would fish, hike and camp, too. As a result of the title, he said, the area's popularity will boom.

"All of a sudden there's that interest in it," he said, "and people want to check it out."

According to Durango's June, 2006, whitewater recreation report, national popularity for rafting and kayaking grew 180 percent since 1998. In Colorado, between 1995 and 2003, popularity for rafting grew 77 percent and kayaking rocketed 450 percent, according to the report. Durango made nearly $19.4 million in 2006 from whitewater recreation, according to the report.

"I figure even if we can capture half of that -- I'm happy to bring $8 million into our community," Burbridge said.

Tanner anticipates the title would grow and educate the paddling community, too. More awareness of outdoor activities -- rock climbing, mountain biking, paddling -- often yields more money for the local recreational businesses, he said.

But the idea is months at least from fruition.

Burbridge said the working group does not yet know how much money is needed to develop a water trail plan to guide the development of the rivers. But the group hopes to adopt a plan in April or May. In the plan, the group needs to develop education strategies, public education signs and maps and websites, management agreements, and priorities and strategies for conserving the river and land, according to her presentation.

The river also needs many boat ramps, said Errol Baade, Production Manager for Jack's Plastic Welding, Inc., an Aztec company that makes rafts, dry bags and other inflatable equipment. But much of the land is privately owned, he said.

Councilor Mary Fischer said selling the idea to property owners along the river is difficult. Without their permission, she said, the plan will likely fail.

Fischer said she owns river-front property and irresponsible paddlers can trash property. But most paddlers are respectful, she said, and she has had great conversations with people passing on the river.

"I think it has great potential for our area," she said. "I am supportive of it."

Baade said he's been floating the rivers with his family for years. They've seen eagles and deer, he said, and it's a wonderful way to enjoy the rivers.

"It's just beautiful floating," he said, "lots of flat water."

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.