By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism
BASALT – Pitkin County has awarded a construction contract worth $770,000 to a company in Durango to build a whitewater park in the Roaring Fork River near Basalt’s Elk Run subdivision.
The in-channel work, to be completed by next February, includes extensive rock work in the channel and on the riverbank and the installation of two wave-producing concrete structures anchored into the riverbed.
The upstream wave is designed to appeal to kayakers, while the downstream wave should also be suitable for stand-up paddlers at some water levels.
After a recent bid process, the county awarded the contract to build the in-channel features of the whitewater park last week to Diggin’ It River Works Inc. of Durango, according to Laura Makar, an attorney with Pitkin County who is overseeing the project. The whitewater park is being managed by the county attorney’s office, as it started as a water-rights effort.
The company has recently built whitewater parks in West Glenwood and Durango. River Restoration of Carbondale, which designed the West Glenwood wave, has designed the Basalt project and its two wave-producing features.
The in-channel work for the Basalt project includes:
constructing temporary coffer dams to channel the flow of the river into a 60-inch bypass pipe to expose the riverbed for construction;
the placement of boulders in the river to form five grade-control structures above the features;
the anchoring of the two wave structures themselves; and
installation of stabilizing boulders along the toe of a steep section of riverbank.
To the river
The county plans to build a modest level of access features and public amenities as part of the project, consistent with approvals for the project granted by the town of Basalt in 2015.
(See “Exhibit A” from town of Basalt ordinance number 18-2015).
The amenities, for example, do not include viewing platforms on the riverbank as shown in some conceptual renderings by the county during public meetings on the project last year.
The riverside improvements, to be completed by May 1, 2017, include a new ramp, or path, down the riverbank from Two Rivers Road to the downstream end of the whitewater park and a metal stairway down the riverbank across from the entrance to the Elk Run subdivision, at the upper end of the whitewater park.
The downstream ramp is to serve as both a public access path and as an emergency ramp big enough to drive an ATV down if necessary.
The stairway, to be built on the riverbank across from the entrance to Elk Run, may or may not be open to the public and might be used for emergency access only, according to James Lindt, a planner with the town.
The county’s plans also include the creation of five or six parallel parking spaces just downvalley of the whitewater park, on town land on the south side of Two Rivers Road, and the addition of four more parking spaces at Fisherman’s Park, which today can hold about eight vehicles in a small dirt lot next to a picnic pavilion and a bathroom.
The town has also required that the county delineate parking spaces for two or three vehicles with trailers near Fisherman’s Park and resurface the small boat ramp across Two Rivers Road from the park. The county also plans to add boulders in the river to enlarge the eddy at the bottom of the modest boat ramp.
In an effort to make it safer for kayakers and spectators heading to and from the whitewater park, the roadside improvements include a path on the south side of Two Rivers Road, just above the whitewater park, to be formed by two sections of split-rail fence running parallel to the road and the river.
The “pedestrian corral” is designed to safely guide people from the downstream end of the whitewater park back up Two Rivers Road toward Fisherman’s Park, which the county is viewing as the primary put-in for boaters to access the two play waves.
It’s a short float around the corner from Fisherman’s Park to the whitewater park location, but it’s a difficult paddle back up the river, especially in higher water, from the whitewater park location to Fisherman’s Park.
So if a boater parks at Fisherman’s Park and floats down to the park, they will likely need to walk back up through the “corral” when they get out of the river, cross the road at the Elk Run intersection, and then walk on the sidewalk on the north side of the road back to the parking lot at Fisherman’s Park.
In an effort to increase pedestrian safety along the busy roadway, the county is also required to install three crosswalks across Two Rivers Road, each with flashing cautionary signs to warn and stop motorists.
The crosswalks are to be located at Fisherman’s Park, at the entrance to the tree farm property about a block down the road, and on the downvalley side of the entrance to Elk Run, at the upstream end of the walking corral. There are currently no marked crosswalks on Two Rivers Road in those locations.
The town intends to discourage accessing the whitewater park from the other side of the river, at the end of Emma Road, past Subway and Stubbies, although there is technically public access to the river from that location on town property. Emma Road is a private road, but it does have a public access easement on it, according to Lindt.
It’s also possible to access the whitewater park from Ponderosa Park, on the south side of the bridge by the 7-Eleven store, where there is public parking and a riverside trail leading up to the whitewater park location.
“The main access to be encouraged is off of Two Rivers Road,” Lindt said.
Construction staging for the project is slated to take place on the Emma Road side of the river, however, and the county is required to leave a dirt roadway for emergency vehicles to use to access the whitewater park when it’s finished.
The location for the Basalt whitewater park is not ideal, either in terms of the roadside access or its place on the river, just below a low highway bridge and hard against a steep bank on river-right.
But the choice of location, just above the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers and the Pitkin County line, has been driven more by a water rights consideration than the location in the river itself or in Basalt, where the town is working on a riverfront park downstream of the county’s whitewater park location.
Pitkin County officials have consistently stressed that their primary motivation in pursuing the whitewater park is to establish the water rights associated with the park’s wave-producing features, but they also think it will be a good recreational amenity.
“I think that this is going to be a water park that people will use, people will enjoy, and people will be safe while using,” Makar said.
The county is eager to move forward with construction of the in-channel work associated with the whitewater park, and is doing so before a “river recreation plan” and a master plan for Two Rivers Road have been completed by the town. Both plans are cited in the town’s approvals of the whitewater park, but there is not a requirement that they be complete before the county moves ahead.
“Pitkin County doesn’t have control over those planning processes, or control over when those planning processes are complete,” Makar said. “That’s why Pitkin County has gone forward with the instream work and the minimal improvements out of stream. If there were recommendations and changes made by the town of Basalt pursuant to those planning processes, certainly the park could adjust in the future to work with recommendations made by those planning processes.”
For example, there has been discussion of moving Two Rivers Road to the north to create more space to access the river. Lindt said a third public meeting on the river recreation plan will likely be held in August.
Final plans coming
The county still has to submit a final site plan for the project, which will provide additional details to the parking and pedestrian aspects of the plan, which are being worked on by Loris, a planning firm in Denver. The county must also obtain a construction management plan and a floodplain development permit from the town before construction begins.
Gregory Knott, the chief of police in Basalt, expressed concerns last year during the review process about public access and safety, given the location of the whitewater park along Two Rivers Road.
“Two Rivers Road is not suited to provide parking for individuals utilizing the whitewater park,” Knott said in a referral-comment letter dated Aug. 27, 2015, emphasizing that “parking along Two Rivers Road is not a safe or viable option.”
On Friday, Knott said he is comfortable that the safety measures ultimately included in the town’s October 2015 approval of the park will address his concerns, but also said he still needs to review the final site plan from the county.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates changes to rivers and waterways, issued a 404 permit for the county’s work in the river in 2010, but the initial deadline to complete the work under the permit has expired and the county is currently seeking an extension until February 2018.
Funding for the project has come from the county’s Healthy Rivers and Streams board and was approved by the county commissioners. The $770,000 worth of work awarded last week does not include the cost of roadside amenities. Makar said an estimate for the final project is forthcoming as design work continues.
After an expensive water court process the county obtained a conditional water right for the whitewater park and it carries a 2010 priority date.
The right is known as a “recreational in-channel diversion,” or RICD, and county officials see the water right as a way to keep water in the river in the face of future potential transmountain diversions from the upper Roaring Fork.
From April 15 to May 17, the county could call for 240 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water to flow through the park.
Then, from May 18 to June 10, the county could call for 380 cfs.
And during peak runoff, from June 11 to June 25, it could call for 1,350 cfs of water to flow through the kayak park and create the biggest surf waves of the season.
After June 25, the water right steps back down to 380 cfs until Aug. 20, and then back to 240 cfs until Labor Day.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News, and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Monday, July 4, 2016.