Want to go kayaking? Think again. Big Sioux river levels are too low, but there are other options.

Makenzie Huber
Sioux Falls Argus Leader
The Big Sioux River is shown on June 14, 2021, near Pasley Park in Sioux Falls. High temperatures and low precipitation have caused water levels on the Big Sioux to drop to levels that make kayaking extremely difficult.

Todd Heitkamp can't remember the last time the Big Sioux River levels were as low as they are this summer.

Over several years of flooding and high river levels, a persistent drought this year and little snow melt from the last winter has left river banks parched along the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls, said Heitkamp, lead meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls.

"We're paying the price a little bit," Heitkamp said. "It's going to take a while for that to be replenished. It's going to take more than one or two rainfalls for sure."

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The persistent drought means the river level around town is too low for one of Sioux Falls' most popular recreational activities: kayaking down the Big Sioux.

The recommended river flow for kayaking is at least 250 cubic feet per second. Right now, the Big Sioux River in town is at about 40 CFS, said Jayden King, owner of King Kayak Rentals.

Many of the areas along the river in town that had seen flooding in recent years now have dry patches exposed or have large boulders and debris sticking out of the river, which had been submerged under water before.

"It's definitely way too low and impacts kayaking on the Big Sioux," King said. "It doesn't mean that you can't kayak, but it does mean that if you go out you'll find yourself getting stuck quite a bit."

That low water level trend is expected to continue throughout the summer, Heitkamp said, adding that summer temperatures are predicted to be above normal with less precipitation throughout the season. Those conditions are changing Sioux Falls residents' plans this summer.

Other area rivers better for kayaking

For King Kayak, it means that King is shuttling his clients out of town so they can kayak on waterways with higher water levels, such as Split Creek Park in Garretson or across the border in Rock Rapids, Iowa.

It's also pushed him to branch out with a new service: tubing along the river.

Kayaks typically float on 6 inches of water or more, depending on the rider's weight. Canoes will typically float on 8 inches, and tubes will float on about 3 inches.

The drought has taught King that he "can't only rely on the in-town routes," and he's instead sought out higher river levels in surrounding towns such as Brandon and Canton for tubing excursions.

After just a few weeks advertising tubing options, King has already seen plenty of interest from clients in the area, he said.

He's hopeful that it'll help keep river tourism alive, since a majority of his clients are from out of state and don't realize how low the river levels are when they visit. He's also seen an increase in inquiries from locals for tubes, since many recreational kayakers are turning to another option to enjoy a leisurely float along an area river.

"I think we're going to see a lot of business around tubing," King said. "Hopefully this will just be an episode and then we'll have years more of high water."