The city of Durango plans to get back into the Animas River this winter to fix human-made rapids at the Whitewater Park that drew criticism for posing too great a risk to boaters during high water last summer.
Tweaks have been made to the Whitewater Park, which flows along Santa Rita Park, as early as the 1980s. But a full-scale $2.6 million project to enhance the park and build a series of rapids began in 2014 and was finished in 2018.
The most recent issue, which requires the city to get back in the river in the coming months, started three years ago and is considered separate from the Whitewater Park, which was led by the Parks and Recreation Department.
In summer 2016, the city’s Utilities Department spent $1 million to build several new features in the river, 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.
Since then, some members of the boating community have said the new features, which span the entire width of the river, function like low-head dams, one of the most dangerous hazards on a river because of the strong, recirculating water that can flip and trap boats, as well as people.
And if people fall out at the new drops, they have a long, cold swim through the actual Whitewater Park, which includes several major rapids and water temperatures in the low- to mid-40s.
“They’re man-made nightmares,” James Wilkes, co-owner of Mountain Waters Rafting, said in a previous interview. “They’re just not natural, and it’s very difficult for a raft to pass through it.”
Last summer, as the Animas River saw above-average flows during spring runoff, it became apparent the rapids were too dangerous to run, especially for commercial rafting companies. Shane Sigle, an engineer with Riverwise Engineering who designed the intake features, said it was imperative to fix the rapids.
“Absolutely, something needs to be done,” Sigle said previously.
He did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
This past summer, Sigle said the only way to permanently fix the rapids would be to use grout to cement boulders in the river to ensure a safely designed flow. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which issues permits for work in any waterways) and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, however, oppose using grout on river bottoms because it can adversely affect aquatic life.
City officials have said it’s unrealistic, and costly, to get back into the river every year to move boulders and rocks. But without being able to use grout, options are limited.
As a result, while long-term solutions are sought, it appears smaller maintenance projects are the city’s only way to make the river safer.
Jarrod Biggs, assistant utilities director, said the plan is to get in the Animas River as early as February to start the project, which could cost around $140,000 to $160,000.
Without grouting, though, the river will eventually move the boulders and nullify the improvements the city plans to make this year.
“The fact is we will have to go back in for maintenance,” Biggs said. “But I hope it’s every three to five years, not every year.”
The city met with members of the boating community last month to identify the most dangerous areas on the river and what kinds of improvements could be made.
But David Moler, owner of Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours, said even with the city’s maintenance project this winter, he won’t send commercially guided trips through the Whitewater Park during high flows because of the risk the intake features pose.
“The days of running that thing at high flows, commercially, are pretty much no longer an option,” he said.
Moler called the city’s project a “$160,000 Band-Aid” and suggested that money might be better spent on an eventual long-term solution.
One idea Moler has proposed to city officials is buying property downstream of the current takeout at Dallabetta Park so trips can be extended below the Whitewater Park.
“(The city) screwed up the Whitewater Park at higher flows, for all of us,” Moler said. “So it would be awesome to see the city say to the community ... ‘because of the intake work we’ve done, we are looking at purchasing private property further south of town.’”
Sigle proposed last summer the idea of moving the city’s water intake a few hundred yards upstream of its current location to property recently acquired by the city.
But Biggs said the idea, while a potential solution, would be costly and take years to complete.
“We all talked about what if we had a bottomless pocketbook, what could we do?” Biggs said. “But we don’t have a bottomless pocketbook, so we need to try to figure out how to make this structure work best we can with the resources we have.”