For the safety of boaters entering Durango’s Whitewater Park, it’s “imperative” the city fix two new features recently installed above the park, according to one of the project’s lead designers. But solutions may not be easy to come by.
“Absolutely something needs to be done,” said Shane Sigle, professional engineer with Riverwise Engineering.
The city of Durango has made tweaks to the Whitewater Park, which flows along Santa Rita Park, as early as the 1980s.
But the most recent issue started three years ago. In summer 2016, the city’s Utilities Department built several new features just above the Whitewater Park for the sole purpose of diverting more water into the city’s water intake for municipal use on the east side of the river.
It’s these new features that are drawing criticism and concern from some in the boating community after the Animas River rose to higher-than-normal flows this year for the first time since the new features were built.
“They’re manmade nightmares,” said James Wilkes, co-owner of Mountain Waters Rafting, in a previous interview. “They’re just not natural, and it’s very difficult for a raft to pass through it.”
In lieu of passing through the Whitewater Park, most rafting companies this spring instead opted to end at the park, go around it or start trips below it.
The new features just above the Whitewater Park span the entire width of the river and, some boaters say, are essentially functioning like low-head dams, one of the most dangerous hazards on a river that have strong recirculating power that can flip and trap boats, as well as people.
And, if a person falls out at these new drops, they have a long, cold swim through the actual Whitewater Park, which features several major rapids and water temperatures that linger in the mid-to-low 40s.
According to Sigle, issues were anticipated even before construction began in 2016.
For a little backstory, the city of Durango obtained water rights on the Animas River specifically for recreation through the Whitewater Park in 2007. As part of the deal, the city pledged to launch a full-scale project to enhance the park, with construction beginning around 2013-14.
That project, which cost about $2.6 million for work specifically in the river, had the unintended consequence of diverting water away from the city’s intake. And on top of that, the new flow of the river exacerbated erosion issues on the contaminated banks of Smelter Mountain, a former uranium tailings dump site.
These issues prompted the need for the Utilities Department’s $1 million project.
Sigle said the ideal design would have been to grout (essentially cement in) four features that would both direct water into the city’s intake, and allow for safe passage of rafts and boats.
But, the Army Corps of Engineers and Colorado Parks and Wildlife expressed concern that using that much grout would adversely affect fish and aquatic insect populations in the river. As a result, only the first, top structure was grouted in.
In spring 2017, during the first test of high water from spring runoff, rocks and boulders not grouted were pushed downstream by the powerful hydraulic force of the river, changing the waterway’s flow and creating a problem for boaters.
“We anticipated challenges … but there’s a lot of hands in this and you have to find a middle ground,” Sigle said. “Unfortunately, you get to a point where you have to build something.”
In the winter of 2017-18, the city submitted a new design proposal that requested additional grouting in the new features. But Kara Hellige, senior project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, said concerns to the impact of river life were not alleviated.
“We felt that alternatives were not evaluated,” Hellige said.
Jim White, an aquatic biologist for CPW, said grouting a river bottom speeds up the flow of water and can prevent the movement of fish. And, it can cover and destroy habitat for aquatic insects.
White, too, said the city of Durango and its designer didn’t provide alternative plans.
“We’re not saying don’t do it, we’re just saying there may be a better, more environmentally friendly way to achieve the same result,” he said. “It would have been nice to have some different designs to look at and review.”
Differences couldn’t be worked out in time for the 2018 spring runoff, and so, as a temporary stopgap measure, the city of Durango got back into the river and moved boulders and rocks in hopes of making a smoother and safer ride through the entrance of the Whitewater Park.
Because 2018 was an extremely low water year, the new features weren’t really an issue for boaters. But as snowpack started to build up in the San Juan Mountains over the winter of 2018-19, it became apparent the river would rise again and problems could resurface.
In summer and fall of 2018, however, the agencies involved made no progress on improving the structures built for the city’s intake. And, as expected, the boulders the city moved the prior year were pushed by the river, resulting in a waterpark most people prefer not to run during this season’s high runoff.
“The ‘step’ nature of that area has gone away … and all the gradient is consolidated into two drop areas,” Sigle said. “That’s why it’s creating such powerful and dangerous hydraulics that absolutely have to be dealt with at this point.”
But solutions may be hard to come by.
Cathy Metz, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said it’s unrealistic, and costly, to expect the city of Durango to get back into the river every year to move boulders and rocks. But, because the Army Corps of Engineers and CPW generally oppose additional grouting, options are limited.
“I don’t think we’ve found a solution everyone is in agreement with,” Metz said.
Sigle is adamant that without being able to use grout, it’s highly unlikely the entrance to the Whitewater Park can be permanently stabilized in its current condition.
One other alternative, he said, may be to move the city’s water intake a few hundred yards upstream of its current location to property recently acquired by the city of Durango.
“But the problem with moving the intake upstream is that it could be costly, and require a lot of community support, as well as funding, from … people who have a stake in valuable river resource in that area,” Sigle said.
Metz said the city in coming weeks will embark on a community dialogue to discuss options for fixing issues at the Whitewater Park. For now, she said those with opinions can email the department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sigle said his design colleagues have constructed about 80 percent of whitewater parks in North America, and it’s not uncommon to have to go back into rivers and tweak structures to get them right.
“The river is a moving, live beast, and you don’t get to control rivers; the best you can do is work with them,” he said.