Smelter fix stalled for at least a year

Who's afraid of a little black muck?  Kayakers take advantage of a relative surge of water levels to the 300-plus cfs range to play in Smelter on Tuesday. Alas, kayakers who shirk the hole's clutches at higher water levels will have to wait at least another year for any man-made relief from hazardous thrashings in the rapid. Kayakers with visions of a new-and-improved Smelter Rapid turning cartwheels in their heads will have to wait another season for the changes.

After several months on the drawing board, improvements to Durango’s whitewater park, which were slated to take place this fall, have been postponed for at least a year. And while the delay is partly the result of this summer’s fires, which sapped the city’s resources, Cathy Metz, Durango’s director of Parks and Recreation, said it is more a product of wanting to get it right.

“Sometimes it’s better to do your homework up front,” she said. “We had a couple of public meetings and had a set of plans, but it wasn’t quite what people wanted.”

The desire to take it slow and incorporate all stakeholders in the process arose after a group of local kayakers, with help from the city, attempted to improve whitewater features on the river in 2001. Although some changes, such as the addition of the Corner Pocket hole below Smelter, were well received, others, such as those done in the Smelter drop, were altered by high water, creating dangerous hydraulics at certain levels.

Grumblings from the local environmental community as well as river users caused the city to reevaluate its approach to river work. As a result, the city hired Boulder-based engineer Gary Lacy, who has built whitewater parks in Steamboat Springs, Golden, Salida and Farmington, to consult on the new plans. The city also hosted a number of public meetings to gauge response to the new set of plans.

“To the city’s credit, they’ve worked hard to get raft companies, environmental representatives, slalom boaters, play boaters and all sorts of river users to pore over the plan,” said Kent Ford, former world champion kayaker and member of the Board of Directors for the newly resurrected Friends of the Animas River.

Lacy met with the public last February to gather ideas and again in March to unveil his draft plan. The city held another public meeting in August to further fine tune the plan. Also, at the urging of FOAR, an effluvial geomorphologist was brought on board to study the effects of the changes on the river bed.

“We wanted to make sure it was done in accordance with good science and bringing in the right scientists,” said Anders Beck, director of the local river watchdog group. As a result, final details of the plan – which includes removal of the rock island that creates the “sneak” to river left as well as the pile of undercut rocks not so affectionately known as “Allen’s Pile” to river right – are still being hammered out. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity granted from the Army Corps of Engineers for the months of September and October is quickly closing, and the work will have to wait until next year.

Metz said the latest set of revisions have been sent back to Lacy, and the final plans will be presented to the public when available. Attempts to reach Lacy on when this might be were sabotaged by poor cell-phone service.

Despite the wait, Ford said taking a cautious approach to the plans is warranted.

“It makes sense because there are a lot of users of the river, so balancing the needs of those groups is worth taking the time,” he said.

However, he also pointed out that Mother Nature will have the ultimate say in the plans, and that those who think this will be a final fix for the river may be in for a surprise.

“The city has a dream of doing it once and being done with it,” he said. “But I think that’s unlikely. This is a high-volume river that rolls rocks around, and it will need periodic maintenance from time to time.”




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