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New whitewater features planned for river

The Greek philosopher Zeno said, “It is not possible to step into the same river twice.”

That is certainly true in Pagosa Springs as rafters and tubers will definitely have two more whitewater features to thrill them next spring and summer.

Furthermore, if Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) permitting goes seamlessly, along with other variables, river enthusiasts could have as many as seven new whitewater structures in the river by next summer.

Simply put, a river restoration project, previously stalled by bureaucratic snafus and the town’s reluctance to pursue further development, now appears to be moving along like a raft riding on mid-March snow melt.

Two weeks ago, the Pagosa Springs town council heard a report from Chris Pitcher, of Riverbend Engineering, on progress and imminent construction slated for early December, on those features.

The two new features, set for completion before next spring, will be installed in the portion of the river adjacent to Town Park.

With two new features slated for completion by mid-December, the town also approved engineering for five additional features in the near future, with construction possible as soon as next spring if ACoE permitting can make it through the process prior to late-winter thawing.

Of the five features, two are planned for installation just north of the bridge on east U.S. 160, adjacent to the River Center shopping complex. Farther down the river, one feature is planned for the portion of the river adjacent to Town Hall, with two more set for construction adjacent to Yamaguchi Park.

With the construction of a total of seven new features in the San Juan River, Pagosa Springs could potentially become a premier destination for rafters, kayakers and other whitewater enthusiasts. In fact, since the installation of the river’s last features (installed in March 2009), local residents became acutely aware of the traffic that just one major wave feature attracted (an additional cross vane structure, a few feet downstream, was also installed). Although no hard data exists to document the exact numbers of increased traffic on the river, few locals would say that the latest wave structure has been a failure.

The Pagosa Springs Town Council was no less aware of the feature’s popularity and, acknowledging the success of recent construction, quickly gave the green light for the structures to be constructed in December. Earlier this summer, council approved engineering and surveys for the additional five structures.

Despite the appearance that the town has moved quickly and decisively on constructing whitewater features, that has not always been the case. In fact, it was not too long ago that a so-called river restoration project looked to be dead in the water.

Previous iterations of the river restoration project were developed by the Boulder, Colo., firm Recreation Engineering and Planning (REP). Contracted in 2004 to design and build structures in the San Juan River for the town, REP fell out of favor with the town due to cost overruns and construction of structures that had violated permits issued by the ACoE.

Following violations to the original permit by REP and town staff, the town found itself sideways with the ACoE, unable to secure permits for new construction until problems with the previous structure (known locally as “Davey’s Wave”) had been mitigated — essentially removed.

In late 2008, council voted to end its relationship with REP and retain the services of Riverbend Engineering, a local company that had made a bid on the original contract in 2004.

Providing the town with two options for moving forward, representatives from Riverbend told council that Davey’s Wave would have to be removed — per ACoE directive — and the river returned to its original configuration. Secondly, to fulfill Division of Wildlife requirements, Riverbend representatives stated that the town would have to secure all easements on properties from the South 6th Street bend of the river to the Apache Street bridge.

By early 2009, council had agreed to pursue the necessary easements and remove Davey’s Wave so that further construction could proceed. Having secured ACoE permits (with a new spirit of cooperation), the town was able to install the two current structures and, more importantly, plan for future structures.

According to Pitcher, construction of the two structures adjacent to Town Park should begin within the next few weeks — with a few conditions.

“It’s kind of hard to predict exactly when we’ll get in the river,” he said, “as it all depends on the availability of volunteers and contractors. Of course, the weather is a factor. If all of those fall into line, we should begin work the beginning of December.”

As far as the additional five structures, Pitcher said that engineering and surveying was in process, as well as necessary easement acquisition (to fulfill ACoE requirements).

“That’s going good and, as far as easements, I think we’ll have that done. Everyone seems to be supportive of the project.”

If Riverbend and the town can secure those easements along with amended ACoE permits, construction on a third phase of the project (for five more structures) could begin as early as next spring.

“Everything would have to fall into place perfectly,” he said, “and again, it depends on the weather. Plus, we don’t want to be in the river when there’s a lot of use. However, if we can’t start in the spring, the permits are good for five years so we can start that construction in the fall or early winter.”

And so, suddenly, improvements in the San Juan River in town, stalled for several years, seems to have opened the flood gates of progress. With timing as the key, contingent on weather, permits, labor mobilization and easement acquisition, the town could see a much different river next summer.

jim@pagosasun.com