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Council considers additional river whitewater features

On Tuesday, the Pagosa Springs Town Council heard a recommendation from the town’s Parks and Recreation Department to expand whitewater features in the San Juan river through town from four to nine.

“With assistance from Jim Miller (Parks Supervisor), surveying and research are being undertaken by Darryl Coster (of Coster Surveys) for the possible acquisition of the easements necessary to develop engineering for at least five additional whitewater features in the San Juan River, which would include three near the highway bridge at the east end of Town, as well as two near Yamaguchi Park,” the Parks and Recreation Department report read.

Currently, the river has just two features (constructed last year), a cross vane structure as a whitewater wave feature installed in front of the Visitor’s Center. The wave structure has a net drop in water surface of two feet, while the downstream cross vane structure, close to the former location of Davey’s Wave, has a net drop of one foot. The features installed last year have proved to be wildly popular, however, and the town has come to see the value of pursuing additional whitewater features.

Indeed, after permits from the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) were secured in late March, construction will commence in the fall for two additional whitewater features in the portion of the river fronting Town Park.

Enthusiasm for new whitewater features marks a pronounced shift in council’s view of river improvements from that held a couple of years ago.

Prior to contracting a local engineering firm — Riverbend Engineering — for design and construction of current whitewater configurations, the town had employed the Bolder, Colo. firm, Recreation Engineering and Planning (REP), for river improvements.

The relationship with REP soured after the installation of the infamous Davey’s Wave structure, construction of which violated ACoE permits. Furthermore, with permitting problems and an increasingly adversarial relationship with the ACoE, expenses continued to rise with REP, while an apparent stalemate stalled further improvements to the river. By mid-2008, council appeared frustrated with the lack of progress on additional whitewater features and expressed an unwillingness to fund further work in the river.

By late 2008, council heard a proposal to end the relationship with REP and to employ Riverbend. In that proposal, Riverbend presented a revised strategy for whitewater structures that promised to still the waters with the ACoE while moving forward with the phased construction of a whitewater park within the town’s portion of the river. Cautiously, council agreed to take one last stab at installing whitewater features.

The completion of the cross vane and whitewater wave feature last March proved to be a hit with recreational boaters and tubers later in the season. With the noticeably increased traffic on the river, council regained an enthusiasm for an in-town whitewater park.

Hearing the Parks and Recreation Department’s expansion proposal on Tuesday, council member Jerry Jackson said, “We really need to do something with this, we need to keep it up.”

Jackson stated that he had rafted the San Juan River for years and that previously, the number of vehicles parked at the traditional Trujillo Road takeout had numbered “four or five at most.

“I took my trailer down there this past weekend and there must have been well over 20 cars and trucks parked there,” Jackson said.

Still preliminary, the additional features would greatly expand the town’s reputation as a whitewater rafting and kayaking destination, creating a whitewater park stretching from the east end of town all the way to Yamaguchi Park.

The portion of the river from the Sixth Street bend to the Apache Street bridge is restricted to fishing structures due to an agreement with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Other parts of the Parks and Recreation report indicated that geotechnical reports and digital surveys for the proposed skate park in Yamaguchi Park had been completed and that a new design and estimated budget should be completed by the end of this week.

Finally, the report indicated that a recommendation by the County’s Parks, Recreation Open Space and Trails Commission to use 1A and County recreation funding for playgrounds had been approved by the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners. Construction of the new playgrounds, in Yamaguchi Park and at the Pagosa Springs Elementary School, will take place this summer.

A discussion during the Pagosa Springs Sanitation General Improvement District meeting (immediately following the Town Council meeting) suggested that the proposed additional five whitewater features were not merely a flight of fancy.

Reporting that a grant application had been submitted to the USDA in a pursuit of funding for a new wastewater treatment plant, PSSGID Supervisor was asked if boulders lining the east end of the San Juan River could be used to build a berm around the proposed wastewater treatment plant (to meet Federal requirements to keep the plant out of a 500-year flood plain).

A previous scheme to build the berm from dirt removed from La Plata Electric Association’s Ponderosa substation site is in question due to pressure from Parelli International LLC to use dirt from the site at the substation for viewshed mitigation.

“Something needs to be done about those rocks,” said Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon. “They’ve been piled up there for years. It’s not just an eyesore but it could be a real liability issue.”

Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem replied that a few of the boulders at the site needed to be selected by Riverbend Engineering for the construction of the proposed additional whitewater features. Pointing to the expense of removing the boulders from their present site, Mitchem indicated that he was confident he could get Riverbend to select the appropriate rocks for whitewater structures and that, “I’ll bring a proposal to the next meeting for the removal of the rocks.”

With that, Mitchem indicated the town’s commitment to pursuing additional whitewater features in the San Juan River.

Not just a boon to local boating enthusiasts, additional whitewater features could provide a boost to the local economy as boaters and kayakers look to Pagosa Springs as a whitewater destination. In fact, Salida, Colo. has gained national recognition not only for its whitewater park, but also for how that park increased tourism and economic activity in Salida.

Council meets again on June 17 at noon in Town Hall.

jim@pagosasun.com