Fixing the Animas River
Task force pitches recreation, habitat improvements for downtown stretch

SideStory: Making the Animas more playful

A kayaker paddles to stay on the wave at Smelter Rapid recently. The Animas River Task Force recently unveiled its conceptual master plan for the stretch of river from 29th Street to High Bridge. The long-term plan calls for new play spots, low-flow passages and bank restoration, among other things, with the goal being to disperse crowds at the popular Smelter area and to extend the boating season./Photo by Todd Newcomer

by Missy Votel

A city-appointed task force recently made public a conceptual plan, some 10 years on the drawing board, for restoration and recreation on the Animas River. However, the plan, which calls for shoring up eroding banks, maintaining and building new whitewater features, protecting fisheries, and creating low-water passages, has made some waves. While proponents see the plan as preserving the “lifeblood of the community,” at least one opponent charges that the river should be left alone to run its course naturally.

“There’s no renewal here,” said Michael Black, a local river guide since 1980 and outspoken opponent of the Animas La-Plata Project. “There are no biological reasons for it. The fisheries are fine; the river’s fine.”

According to Kevin Hall, the city’s Parks, Open Space and Trails Development Manager, the idea for a conceptual river plan was laid forth in the city’s 1994 Animas River Corridor Plan and further refined in its 2001 Parks Master Plan.

“The river corridor was identified as an area to preserve and improve upon,” he said. “We looked at public vision and goals.”

Since the original river corridor plan, the community’s interest in boating has grown, he said, as have requests to improve and expand upon whitewater features at Smelter Rapid. In 2002, the city hired whitewater park builder Gary Lacy, of Boulder, to do work in the Smelter area. However, controversy over Lacy’s use of grout as well as the cost of his work, led the city to look locally for expertise.

“The community felt we had enough experience to do it ourselves,” Hall said.

Thus, the Animas River Task Force was appointed about three years ago and has been meeting monthly for the last year and half to hammer out a plan.

“The interest on the part of community members is really what’s driving this and has brought it to the forefront,” Hall said.

He said the task force, which includes representatives from kayaking, commercial rafting, fishing, environmental and water engineering interests, as well as a member of the city’s Parks and Forestry Advisory Board, is concerned not only with recreation, but the overall health of the river system as it runs through town.

“The vision is larger than recreation opportunities,” he said. “We are also looking at riparian habitat improvement and river cleanup. The river is the lifeblood of the community.”

At the top of the task list is the need to disperse boaters along the river through the creation of new play holes. Currently, river users say there is a bottleneck at the Whitewater Park in Santa Rita Park, home to the popular play spots of Smelter Rapid and Corner Pocket, as well as the slalom course.

“The goal is to alleviate pressure at Smelter,” said Task Force member and kayaker John Brennan. “If 500 kids were trying to play soccer on the same field, people would be yelling at the city to fix it. It’s really no different.”

The conceptual plan, which was unveiled last month, proposes 10 recreational improvements along the river from 29th Street to the High Bridge. The changes include five new kayak play spots, ongoing maintenance at Smelter Rapid, the creation of three low-flow passages for rafts, and bank restoration at Schneider Park. The plan also calls for improving fish habitat and fishing access. Once approved, the plan will need a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which requires an environmental assessment and a 30-day public comment period.

The changes are expected to cost $50,000, a drop in the bucket compared to what other cities are paying for similar projects, Brennan said.

“Pueblo just paid $2.2 million for its whitewater park,” he said. “By doing it ourselves, we’re saving the city money.”

For Brennan, the conceptual plan has been in the works far longer than 10 years. He was among a small group of locals in 1985 that originally approached the city about doing river enhancement at Smelter Rapid. In the years since, various members of the river community have gone into the river in and around Smelter a handful of times in an attempt to perform routine maintenance, improve safety or add features, such as Corner Pocket which was done in 2001. However, the growing popularity of kayaking, coupled with the ever-changing nature of the river, has deemed routine maintenance more and more of a necessity. If the plan is approved, the city would apply for a blanket, or open, permit from the Army Corps for making and maintaining such changes over the next several years rather than piece-mealing them.

Rafters take out at the High Bridge, south of Durango last week. A conceptual plan released by the Animas River Task Force calls for creating a new play hole at the High Bridge. The task force also is considering a new take out for private boaters at the bridge to alleviate congestion./Photo by Todd Newcomer.


However, Black contends that the plan, in addition to being unnecessary, could be harmful by stirring up toxic sediment, a byproduct of the city’s Smelter days.

“No one has done a sediment study, and there’s tons of sediment down there,” he said. “At a minimum, they need to do an environmental impact study and sediment studies.”

He also questioned the wisdom of embarking on what will ultimately be a losing battle between man and nature.

“The river will do what rivers do,” he said. “It’ll blow out anything you put in there. We didn’t see anything with this year’s run-off.”

As far as Black is concerned, the river has been continually hammered over the years, and the time has come to let it return to its natural state.

“When I started boating in 1980, you would get to the Highway 160 bridge and not even know you were in the middle of a town,” he said.

However, Brennan said that returning the river to its natural state may not be prudent or even possible, noting that over the last century, sections have been realigned, old cars embedded into banks for erosion control and toxic tailings and other construction materials dumped into the water. If the community wants the river to be healthy and remain a viable source of recreation, periodic maintenance will be needed, he said, likening the process to tree pruning. “You can’t just let the river do its thing all the time,” he said. “Sometimes you have to go in and do some maintenance.” Over time, rocks move, banks cave in and sediment forms, altering the river’s course and features, he said.

Despite Black’s misgivings, Brennan said improvements can be made using “simple yet very effective” tactics, such as moving existing rocks and engineering new piles. He also added that there will be no “dredging” of the river bed, and impact from a track hoe is minimal compared to other forces.

“One big rainstorm does more damage than a track hoe on the banks of the river,” he said. “The amount of sediment a machine puts in the river is a couple hundred pounds, whereas naturally during run-off like right now, it is millions of pounds.”

Brennan also said the utmost attention will be paid to making the features look as natural as possible, and he said the current track record at Smelter proves this.

“I spend about 320 days down there a year and talk to a lot of folks,” said Brennan, who is a slalom coach for Durango Whitewater, “and not a single person knows that section is man-made.”

And while Black contends that the river plan is based on “selfish reasons,” Brennan notes that such whitewater parks are popping up all over the country, offering far-reaching benefits not only to boaters but the communities as a whole.

“There are 43 cities with whitewater parks around the country,” he said. “These cities are seeing the economy benefit and seeing the long-term health of the river get better, and it revitalizes the cities.”

He also reiterated that the plan is not directed solely at kayakers, noting that the task force is taking a wider scope. For example, plans call for saving large cottonwoods that are in danger of eroding into the river and working with the A-LP operator to landscape the intake and plan pumping for times when it won’t interfere with recreation or fisheries.

“We’ve got the best river in the state. It really is the lifeblood of this town,” he said. “It’s about making it better for the generations to come.” •



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