Project Initiation

Initiating a Whitewater Park Project

Here in Durango, Colorado, we have the distinction of having the oldest whitewater park in the nation, going back more than 25 years. Back in the day, it was an easy process to get the required Army Corp permits and move rocks around to create river features. These days it seems like everyone has a stake in what goes on in the river, and that is a good thing. Lots of users with a stake in the river also meant that when we wanted to take our whitewater park to the next level, and make it a permanent fixture with dedicated water rights, we needed to form a task force composed of a representative sample of all river users.

In order to work with these many interest groups we formed this task force under the aegis of the Parks and Recreation department. This department would be steering this beast (our design and approvals process) and making reports to the City Council. We found out quickly that the best way to doom a project to failure is to have a vocal user group that is opposed to it. In fact, the most interesting political lesson of this whole process seemed to be the principle, “It is not necessarily what the most people want that will get approved, it is what the least number of people oppose that will get the go ahead.” In our case, our whitewater designer located a site on a stretch of river in downtown Durango where we found that we had widespread support from most user groups…but the existing whitewater park site, removed from downtown, had the least amount of resistance, and so the plans for the WW Park moved forward at that location.

The task force had what amounted to a couple of year’s worth of work ahead of it. We convened community scoping sessions, study sessions, commissioned economic impact studies (this helped immeasurably in getting the City on board), brought in experts in the fields of whitewater park design and construction, water biologists, DOW fishery experts etc. In our case, we were also aiming to get dedicated water rights for our project and so that added a lot more work to our plate.

In the final analysis, our biggest decision was who we should retain to do the design and construction of the new white water park. It was S2o designs extensive experience in shepherding these projects through the process of community/local government approval and federal permitting that sold us. Their expertise and hands on involvement was crucial at every step along the way, without which we would likely have foundered at any of the many critical junctures. S2o has the unique ability to put many conflicting stakeholders in the same room and work through the process to find consensus—this was key to moving our park forward.

The benefits that our community has seen from our whitewater park have been numerous. We had an Olympic slalom kayak silver medalist and freestyle World Champion training primarily at our park leading up to their events. We have a local slalom club that uses the site for training our up-and-coming slalom kids. We also host training camps for other clubs from around the nation/region. Our park is one of international quality which means that we also are able to host international slalom events such as the US Slalom Nationals, the US Team trials, numerous freestyle competitions, and our annual Animas River Days celebration and competition (a river festival). These events brings boaters, entertainment and tourists to our downtown as well as to the banks of our river. It has been a great addition to our town for boaters and non-boaters alike and greatly benefits our Town’s economy. These parks are a win-win for everyone.

Brian Brown, Animas River Task Force

Recommendations:

  • Work with your local community: While it took us a while to get the City and the City Council to buy into the idea, they are truly the ones that gave this project some teeth.
  • Get the project on your City’s master plan. Once we became a part of the master plan the rest were just the details of how to get a park going.
  • Find a consultant that excels at the public process. It can be difficult to forge ahead if you are working against, instead of with, stakeholder groups such as fishermen and rafting groups. You want to find a consultant that makes these stakeholders (and many others) a part of the process.