Colorado River rafting guides are used to navigating through and around whirlpools and "keeper holes," the kind of white-water hydraulic effects that can suck a boat down and hold it underwater. Right now they are finding themselves swamped in the wake of the U.S. Coast Guard's decision to take away regulation of the rafting industry in the Grand Canyon from the National Park Service. It's become a bureaucratic whirlpool in itself that none of the involved parties--the rafters, the Coast Guard or the Park Service--wants.

"The problem," Flagstaff-based raft outfitter Rob Elliott says, "is we didn't have a problem."

Now they do: a second regulating agency steaming down upon them, unstoppable despite the Republican efforts to push deregulation, despite President Clinton's March 4 memo calling for agency heads to eliminate duplication of effort. The rafters will now be regulated by both the Coast Guard and the Park Service.

Though the Colorado River does constitute one of Arizona's borders, it seems a stretch to call it a "coast." The Coast Guard, in fact, is responsible for regulating all commercial vessels on federal navigable waters, which includes the Colorado, but since the National Park Service was so adequately on top of rafting regulation, there was no reason to rock the boat.

Last season, however, sharp-eyed rangers at Lake Mead National Recreation Area read the fine print regarding regulation of small commercial vessels and realized they could dump their raft-inspection duties on the Coast Guard.

Coast Guard officers in San Diego responded diligently and descended upon Lake Mead's single river-raft outfitter, Black Canyon Rafting, which promptly asked Congresswoman Barbara Vucanovich (Republican from Nevada) to find out why it was the only outfitter in the country to pique the Coast Guard's interest.

Vucanovich asked the same of the Coast Guard commandant in Washington, D.C., who really didn't have a good answer except that it was the law. He responded that, henceforth, the Coast Guard would regulate all rafting outfitters on the Colorado River, as well.

The river regulations that the Park Service has set over the years already fill 40 pages. The developing Memorandum of Agreement between the Coast Guard and the Park Service requires the Coast Guard to take over all licensing of boatmen. But the boatmen were quick to note that existing Coast Guard tests were filled with questions about which side of the buoys to steer to on the way out of the harbor and what a red sky at night meant--questions inappropriate to river rafting.

The Coast Guard would also monitor boat inspections, which terrified the outfitters, because their rafts are made of interchangeable parts and they wondered if each new combination would require reinspection.

"At the end of the trip, the boat gets rolled up and put in a truck," says Bruce Winter, a Phoenix-based outfitter. "The Coast Guard could say, if they follow the letter of the law, that once they certify each individual boat, you could never change any of these parts."

The boatmen also got hold of the developing regulations for the Black Canyon rafters, which specified the number of days a guide needed to spend on the river to be certified, asked for letters of intent to hire them--boatmen are almost all part-timers waiting for a trip to open for them--and required that they be U.S. citizens who demonstrate "good habits of life."

"To many folks," one river runner wrote in a letter to the Grand Canyon river ranger, "being a boatman could be considered a bad habit."

And the memorandum also requires that guides submit to drug tests and physical examinations at their own expense, which could cost up to $300 per guide. Winter's company, Arizona River Runners, for example, has about 40 guides.

Currently, the Grand Canyon River Guides Association estimates that raft inspection costs more than $100,000 annually to the 17 outfitters operating in the canyon. The new tests could add even more to that cost, but outfitters would not be able to pass those costs along to customers: Their rates are controlled by the Park Service and have been frozen for three years.

Furthermore, the raft outfitters resent that they will have to educate the Coast Guard regulators on the murkier waters of the Colorado River.

"We have to take our time to instruct them in how to regulate us so that we can pay them to do it," says Rob Elliott.

"One of the ironies is their high degree of ignorance as to our industry, as to how we operate and what has evolved over the last 30 years in our industry and our partnership with the Park Service."

Elliott cites the Coast Guard's suggestion that outfitters be in constant radio contact with the park rangers. The park, however, will not give them a radio band, the FCC will not allow transmission from the canyon, and because much of the park is wilderness, there can be no repeater stations built to carry the transmissions. Currently, in emergency situations, rafters must use ground-to-air radios to contact passing commercial flights, which then radio Los Angeles International Airport, which in turn alerts the Park Service to dispatch rescue helicopters.

Officials at Grand Canyon National Park refused to give their opinions as to whether the Coast Guard should or shouldn't interfere with their rafting regulations. The Coast Guard officers charged with the duty, however, are being good soldiers about the matter--even if they are not enthusiastic about it.

In fact, when the Coast Guard commanders in Long Beach and San Diego were ordered to set sail for the Grand Canyon, they asked twice.

"I will admit we were not looking forward to getting involved in this because it stretches our people, our travel funds," says Captain Ed Page at the Coast Guard's Long Beach Marine Safety Office. "The Coast Guard's not growing--if anything, it's shrinking--and we weren't looking into new areas to regulate."

But orders are orders, and so they set a course, full speed ahead, to satisfy the letter of the law: to fine-tune the existing Grand Canyon regulations, stamp them with the official Coast Guard seal of approval, then leave them for the canyon park staff to administer. The Park Service will still be in charge, in short, in the name of the Coast Guard.

Almost all waters might be calmed.
Except, perhaps, at Lake Mead. "We asked the Coast Guard to come and do inspections," says Chief Ranger Dale Antonich. "That's their job. Now they have told us that we will be doing the inspections after all.

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Michael Kiefer