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Parting of the waves

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

The city of Durango plans to improve the whitewater park around Smelter Rapid in Santa Rita Park. Plans include building an amphitheater and widening the Animas River Trail along with improvements to whitewater features in the river.

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

In simpler and perhaps less environmentally sensitive times of the mid-1970s, a whitewater enthusiast drove a bulldozer into the Animas River to push a boulder downstream and remove an obstruction for sports like kayaking and rafting, says longtime paddler John Brennan.

Such initiative helped put Durango on the map with one of the nation’s first whitewater parks by the late 1980s, but the city has a hard time keeping up with the continual rush of the river disturbing its strategically placed rocks to enhance eddies and rapids.

With a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, the city has a much more ambitious plan for improving the park that’s biblical in scope: It will part the waves of the Animas River.

By using berms or coffer dams, sections of the river will be split into dry and wet sides to allow workers to get to the river bottom of the whitewater park, also known as Smelter Rapid, by Santa Rita Park and Durango’s wastewater-treatment plant.

Contractors then will do restoration and maintenance work, such as grouting boulders into place, as well as creating a new underwater structure to allow for gentler rapids and to accommodate beginner and intermediate ability levels.

The work is scheduled to begin in November and wrap up by next March, which also will result in a temporary diversion of the Animas River Trail to the other side of the wastewater-treatment plant and away from the river construction. This section of river trail is scheduled to get an upgrade, too, widening from 10 to 14 feet to accommodate an anticipated increase in traffic to the river.

Plans also call for a partial relocation of the equipment yard for the wastewater-treatment plant to create a more park-like setting by the river entrance. Erosion of the shoreline would be mitigated with boulders. Officials hope to create a more graded or level access to the river that would be in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The city’s hired mastermind is Scott Shipley, a World Cup champion kayaker who also competed in three Summer Olympics and whose firm, S2O Design, also developed the hydraulic features in the whitewater course for the London Olympics. The firm currently is a consultant for the whitewater course for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Despite the stellar résumé, Shipley warns against high expectations during the construction process.

At a community meeting Monday at the Durango Community Recreation Center, Shipley said the park “will get way worse before it gets better. There will be tractors in there. There will be mud in there. You will see big piles of stuff in there. It will very much be a construction site, but rest assured, everything we’re doing, this has been vetted by the Army Corps of Engineers.”

The splitting of the river takes the guesswork out of the whitewater park design, Brennan said.

Trying to place rocks strategically without knowledge of the river bottom was “always a roll of the dice,” Brennan said.

“You’re not sure what the (rock) is hitting,” Brennan said. “You’re hoping it stays.”

With this construction plan, “we’ll see how the rocks are touching each other. We’ll be able to put it together like a jigsaw puzzle.”

As a safety note, Shipley also compared it to putting in an outdoor patio with the flat surface of the rock facing up and the more jagged section facing down as a foundation.

While the features primarily are rock structures, people might notice the new concrete in the interstitial spaces or between the layers of rock because of the difference in color of the newly painted concrete and rocks, but this should become less apparent over time as the paint fades, Shipley said.

Brennan does not think people will notice much difference to the river itself.

“It will essentially be the same,” he said. “We’re not taking a river that never had a rapid and trying to put in a rapid. We’re taking an area that has a great rapid and trying to make sure it doesn’t move around so much.”

The $1.3 million project is funded by a half-cent sales tax that voters approved in 2005 for parks and recreation purposes, but the project has ramifications bigger than minimizing maintenance and hopefully getting Durango “back on the map” as a destination for whitewater competitions.

It fulfills a mandate of the city’s Recreational In-Channel Diversion right, which was granted by the Colorado Water Conservation Board about six years ago.

“By completing the whitewater park, it gives us the right to protect the (river) forever,” said Cathy Metz, director of Parks and Recreation. “So we could never have a diversion of the Animas upstream or a dam on the Animas. It’s a big deal for our community, not only for paddling but for environmental reasons, as well.”

But messing with the river still makes some people nervous.

Dave Kelley said he lives for the summer rapids.

“Some of us wait all year,” he said. “It’s part of my life and my child’s life, and it’s very important.”

Kelley said he loves the whitewater park so much that he doesn’t care about the odors from the wastewater-treatment plant.

“Even that horrible smell? I love it,” Kelley said. “I smell like crap for three months and don’t care.”

Shipley said he gets it.

“This is the flagship of the whitewater parks, or it was,” he said. “It will be the flagship of whitewater parks again. So I hear from you. This is not a project we’re going to fall asleep on.”

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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