One more season of work is scheduled for alterations to the Durango Whitewater Park, but that didn’t stop about 20 people from celebrating one of the city’s premiere attractions Thursday.
A dedication ceremony for the completion of the park was held at the Kiwanis Pavilion in Santa Rita Park, drawing people involved since the project’s beginnings.
“It’s an amazing amenity we have here in town,” said Rich Hoehlein, a member of the Parks and Recreation advisory board.
Small-scale recreational enhancements to the Whitewater Park, which flows alongside Santa Rita Park, have been going on since the 1980s.
However, in 2007, the city of Durango acquired a decree from a Colorado water court that guarantees a certain amount of flow for a whitewater park, putting to rest concerns of a trans-mountain diversion or a dam upstream limiting flows.
As part of obtaining the decree, the city pledged to launch a large-scale project to construct and improve the Whitewater Park for river runners, which began in earnest in 2014.
For the past few years, the city has contracted crews to get in the river and make adjustments to a series of rapids, with input from local river users, such as rafting companies, private boaters and kayakers.
The city was supposed to complete the project last spring, but when river levels rose unexpectedly, it was forced to put off the finishing touches on a few more areas that needed work.
However, Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz said the delay allowed the city to monitor the Whitewater Park through another season of use, particularly helpful after additions made last year in a separate project, just upstream of the park.
Last October, Durango’s Utilities Department began a $1 million construction project to direct more inflows into the city’s water intake for municipal use. In doing so, several new features in the river were created.
“The new additions to the Whitewater Park create an entirely new element to what we’re used to rafting down the Animas River,” Durango Rivertrippers owner David Moler said previously.
This most recent and likely last large-scale project seeks to address a few lingering issues in the park and at its entrance.
At Corner Pocket Rapid, crews will reconfigure boulders on the right side of the river so that when the river reaches high flows, the current going into the rapid will spread out more evenly.
Crews also plan to clear out rocks at the eddy below Ponderosa Rapid as well as the channel between Ponderosa and Clocktower rapids. A few boulders on river right will be reconfigured just above Corner Pocket, too.
At the entrance to the Whitewater Park (the section altered last year during the intake project), crews are looking to improve the left channel, which gave river runners trouble this summer.
A few more tweaks will be made in the entrance section, just above Smelter Rapid, the parks department said.
“You never say it’s going to be the last (project in the river),” said Scott McClain, parks manager. “But it will be a number of years before we get back in the river.”
Past work on the Whitewater Park has drawn mixed reviews from the boating community.
Troy McLeod, owner of Southwest Raft and Jeep, said the city needs to make the entrance of the Whitewater Park more runnable when the river is at low flow, below 400 cubic feet per second.
“They created a very unsafe condition down there,” he said. “We are truly blessed people didn’t break their arms or legs.”
McLeod also voiced concern that low flows at the entrance to the park could cause rafting companies to cut their seasons short.
And Tom OKeeffe, owner of Durango Rafting Co., said the city’s work has made Smelter Rapid unnaturally hazardous. He said before the recent construction, it was a fun, relatively easy ride through Smelter.
“Now, it’s needlessly complicated,” he said.
Parks and Recreation’s Metz, who has been working on the Whitewater Park for nearly 20 years, said even before construction, people had differing opinions about the section of river. Now that this particular project is nearing its end, that’s not likely to change.
“Just like any project, some people think it’s great and others aren’t as pleased,” she said. “We do our best to balance all of that and make it safe, first and foremost.”
The total cost of the Whitewater Park is estimated at $3.9 million. Metz said it’s likely small maintenance and tweaking projects will occur when needed.