New life for river project

After months of debate and deadlock regarding a proposed river restoration project, it now seems the Pagosa Springs Town Council is back in the flow of things.

In fact, a new and revised plan for whitewater features in the San Juan River could be before the Pagosa Springs Town Council in a matter of weeks, if not days.

Previous iterations of the river restoration project were developed by the Boulder, Colo., firm Recreation Engineering and Planning (REP). Contracted in 2004 to design and build structures in the San Juan River for the town, REP recently fell out of favor with the town due to cost overruns and construction of structures that violated permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE).

At a Pagosa Springs Town Council meeting on Monday, Sept. 22, council member Angela Atkinson stated that she had been working with Kara Helige of ACoE and Chris Phillips of Riverbend Engineering to reinvigorate the project.

According to Atkinson, there are several advantages to having Phillips continue the project. Riverbend was one of the firms that made a bid on the original contract in 2004 and “is intimately aware of the issues regarding the project and what needs to be done.”

Atkinson added that Riverbend also knows the permitting process and would not likely repeat the mistakes made by REP in violating the terms of ACoE permits.

Addressing the council, Phillips acknowledged that there would be challenges associated with moving forward on the project and that two conditions need to be met before work could proceed. First, the popular feature known locally as “Davey’s Wave” would have to be removed — per ACoE directive — and the river returned to its original configuration. Secondly, per Division of Wildlife requirements, the town would have to secure all easements on properties from the South 6th Street bend of the river to the Apache Street bridge.

However, Phillips did not seem to think that fulfilling the two requirements were insurmountable. Indeed, according to Phillips, the biggest challenge would be to complete the project within the narrow window between November and March, when water levels are low enough to accomodate construction in the river and compliance with environmental regulations.

Again, Phillips stated that Riverbend was up to the task and was confident that his firm would not only deliver on time but also made assurances that Riverbend would not charge the town more than what was contracted. Such assurances were a relief to council, considering REP had charged the town over $50,000 beyond its contract and has, to date, still not completed designs for the project, much less begun construction in the river.

The new plan, as proposed by Riverbend, would be a stripped-down version of the previous proposal, moving all whitewater structures upstream from their current locations to the area of the river near Town Park. Phillips said the new design has several advantages, primarily, “This will be a simpler, faster, easier process.

Kayak and rafting afficionados may view the new plan as “whitewater lite” in that the plan involves fewer features (two or three, at most) and those features will be beginner oriented. Those features would be a boon for tubers, however, arguably the largest numbers of users floating the river.

Phillips also stated that, by moving the structures upstream, “The new plan avoids conflict of use.”

“Avoiding conflict of use” refers in part to the vision of the river as conceived by Bill Whittington, owner of the Springs Resort (and articulated by his representative Matt Mees), where the portion of the river west of the Hot Springs Boulevard bridge would be primarily the domain of anglers.

Indeed, with the presentation of the new plan and its relocation of whitewater features near Town Park, the issue of securing easements from the Springs Resort went from impasse to probable. Furthermore, the new plan ignited a spark of largesse from the Springs Resort, as it committed a $25,000 donation for the project along with agreeing to pay $18,000 ahead on its geothermal leases to further fund the project.

Council followed up Atkinson’s presentation at its special meeting on Friday, Sept. 26, directing Atkinson to proceed with investigating the possibility of a contract with Riverbend. Council member Shari Pierce asked whether council needed to generate a Request For Proposal (RFP) to employ Riverbend. Per Pagosa Springs Town Charter, an RFP is required to open contracts for competitive bidding.

Town attorney Bob Cole advised the town that, although the town could generate an RFP if it so desired, an RFP would not be necessary in this case because a contract already existed, Riverbend’s work would be essentially an amendment to that contract, and money has already been budgeted by the town to fund that contract.

Should Riverbend get the contract to continue work on the river restoration project, such a move would effectively terminate the town’s relationship with REP. Furthermore, the town could pursue litigation to recover some of the money spent with REP and demand completion of at least the 15 percent of the design phase that REP has left incomplete. Or the town could merely give REP a pink slip and cut its losses.

Council will consider its options with Riverbend and REP at its next meeting Tuesday, Oct. 7, at 5 p.m. in council chambers at Town Hall. Whichever way council decides, plans and discussion for the river restoration project have been given yet another chance.

jim@pagosasun.com