Task Force unveils Smelter solution
Group looks to return rapid to former self

Lincoln McNulty, of New York City, and Fort Lewis College student Jacqueline Korbet extend the paddling season just a little longer with a stint in Smelter Rapid on Monday. The city has come up with a plan for repairing the rapid, which involves rebuilding the river right berm at the drop./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

After two years in the planning pipe, the city of Durango has charted a course of action for Smelter Rapid in Whitewater Park – yet Mother Nature may have the final say in whether the plan comes to fruition this fall.

In February 2001, a group of local whitewater enthusiasts seized on an Army Corps of Engineers permit that allows the city to conduct periodic upkeep on the whitewater park. They entered the Animas River with a trackhoe to perform maintenance and upgrades. However, once the high waters of spring runoff receded, it became apparent that not all of the work had withstood the pounding, including a crucial rock supporting the river right berm at Smelter Rapid. The result was a channeling of the rapid into a river right rock outcropping, which since has been the site of many a nasty swim for local boaters. This, in addition to a natural deterioration of the rapid over the years, caused the city to re-examine its whitewater plan. Later that summer, Boulder firm, Recreational Engineering and Planning, owned by renowned whitewater park designer Gary Lacy, drew up preliminary plans for an overhaul of the park. However, after opposition from local river users, the city opted to abandon the services of Lacy this summer in favor of a plan drawn up by a local task force representing various facets of the river community.

“(Lacy’s) plan was not something the community wanted, so we did not pursue it,” said Kathy Metz, director of Durango Parks and Recreation.

After several weeks of meetings, the Animas River Task Force reached consensus on a plan, which was revealed at a public meeting on Oct. 1. According to Task Force member and local slalom racer John Brennan, the plan represents a departure from Lacy’s, which called for removing the island at Smelter Rapid and converting the rapid into a series of drops.

“We want to tread as lightly as possible,” said Brennan of the new plan, emphasizing that rather than altering the rapid completely, the goal is to return it to its pre-2001 state. “The plan is not to change the drop itself but to make it the way it was before it collapsed.”

He also acknowledged the need to address the dangerous rock pile below the rapid, which in addition to posing a threat of bodily harm also presents a pinning hazard.

“I know personally of five people who have gotten hurt there and two people who’ve gotten pinned,” he said.

The plan calls for realigning the river’s flow so it goes more toward the middle of the channel, away from the dangerous right side. To accomplish this, a few boulders from the island will be relocated to reconfigure the collapsed river right berm at the rapid’s drop; boulders will be removed from the river right side of the island to open up the channel; boulders on the right side of the channel above the main drop also may be moved; and the sharp rock outcropping below the rapid on river right will be reconfigured. He said large, square rocks – which are less apt to tumble – will be used whenever possible to lessen the possibility of another collapse. The failure rate of the plan is based on an 8,000 cubic foot per second flood study, and the river right berm design is based on a standard Army Corps design, according to task force members.

“The berm will be tapered up to ease pressure off it as the water rises,” said Brennan, who estimates the work will take two days. However, a river level of no more than 250 cfs will be required to conduct the work safely. But with recent rains and the brown trout spawning season beginning, the window of opportunity may soon close. The ideal time for doing work on the river and causing the least impact on aquatic life, according to Mike Japhet of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, was August or September. Since August coincided with high tubing season, September was originally targeted for the work. But a storm in the early part of the month sent river levels skyrocketing, forcing a delay in the work. And although recent rains have kept river levels higher than expected, which means work during the brown trout spawning season, Japhet said he understands the predicament.

“August and September are good times to do the work, but now we’re out of that window,” he said. “Obviously if you have a safety hazard and you have to get in the river, sooner is better than later.”

Brennan reassured Japhet that the plan is designed to do minimal damage to the river bed, relying on “picking and placing” rocks rather than scraping the river bottom. Regardless, he said he is hopeful the group will be able to get in and out in a timely manner.

“We do want to get it done as soon as we can, water levels permitting,” he said.





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