Event kicks off three-day holiday weekend run on Friday

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FARMINGTON — Last year at this time, there was so little runoff from the San Juan Mountains snowpack that organizers of Riverfest, Farmington's annual three-day celebration of the Animas River, feared they would have to move one of their more popular attractions, rafting trips, to the nearby San Juan River.

Those fears turned out to be unfounded. But with conditions on the Animas vastly different this year, festival officials seem to have traded one concern for another — too much water in the river.

That issue is hardly unprecedented, according to Gloria Lehmer, the sponsorship chairwoman for this year's Riverfest and a board member of the River Reach Foundation, the nonprofit organization that presents the festival. She said the park flooded as recently as 10 years ago, though, for much of the ensuing period, a lack of moisture has been the biggest concern.

This year, with the snowpack in the San Juans hovering near 300 percent of normal after a wet and cold late winter and early spring, the Animas River flow is robust. Lehmer said as recently as a few days ago, the water level had climbed to within 6 inches of the flagpoles in Veterans Memorial Park before receding.

Lehmer said the forecasts she has seen indicate river conditions will continue to moderate throughout the week, leaving the festival, now in its 33rd year, in good shape this weekend.

"It looks good for Riverfest," she said. "There's been a lot of worry, and that makes our job more stressful, but everybody is excited because the river is so beautiful right now."

There is a noticeable difference in the energy surrounding the event when the river is full, Lehmer said. Event organizers also are benefiting from an increased awareness of the economic development potential the river holds, she said, and that has led more people to be open to the goals of the River Reach Foundation, which seeks to protect, promote and enhance Farmington's riverine corridors.

Response has increased this year among sponsors and vendors, according to Lehmer.

"We still have to reach out. We don't just send out a letter. There is a lot of face-to-face conversations. We still have to do that, but more people are reaching out to us," she said.

As an illustration, she said the event drew 120 volunteers last year. By early this week, 150 people already had signed up for that duty, she said.

Visitors to the event will find a wide range of attractions from which to choose, including such longtime favorites as the wiener dog races, the plastic duck race and raft trips. A $2,000 grand prize is up for grabs in the duck race, which also features consolation prizes of $1,000, $500 and donated prizes. Each entry is $5.

New to the event this year will be the inaugural Riverfest Rally Race — for the love of the Animas!, an event that will feature representatives of local government entities, businesses and other organizations engaging in a raft race. Lehmer said the event was the brainchild of Marcel Gaztambide, the Animas riverkeeper for the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance. The event will feature an awards ceremony and a traveling trophy that will be presented to the winning team.

An opening celebration for Riverfest will take place on May 24 that includes food and drink, live entertainment and art, as well as the VIP Summer Kickoff event. Lehmer said the latter event was presented for the first time last year on a much smaller basis and was designed to engage and thank festival sponsors, who receive VIP tickets to the celebration. It proved to be so popular that organizers brought it back this year.

The festival itself also includes a children's area, two car shows, a recycled art show, a disc golf tournament, Native dancers, art displays, a yoga class, tractor rides, food vendors and a beer and wine garden.

"I think it's a proven event," Lehmer said of Riverfest, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year. "People enjoy it. It's beautiful when the water is flowing. There are the ducks, the wildlife, the trails … It's just gorgeous."

Riverfest begins with the kickoff party at the River Reach Terrance in Berg Park from 5 to 9 p.m. May 24, while the festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. May 25 and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 26 in Berg and Animas parks. Admission to the festival is free, but tickets to the VIP party are $25. Visit riverreachfoundation.com or call 505-716-4405 for a schedule of events.

Parking is free, but for those who wish to avoid the trouble, the free Riverfest Express bus service will run every 30 minutes between the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park and various festival stops on both sides of the river.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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