River runners suggest safety changes at Basalt whitewater park | AspenTimes.com

River runners suggest safety changes at Basalt whitewater park

Tom Wills tests out the Pitkin County Whitewater Park in Basalt this summer.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

Aspen-area river runners urged Pitkin County officials Tuesday night to tweak features at the new Whitewater Park in Basalt to make them safer at high water.

The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams program and the county’s engineer for the project, River Restoration, hosted a public meeting to solicit opinions about the first summer of operations.

“With any whitewater park there’s a break-in period,” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely, who oversaw the project and acknowledged some tweaks are needed.

“That’s what this meeting is all about,” he said.

“There were a lot of people losing boats, swimming and getting beat up.” — Royal Laybourn, river runner

The public had a fairly cohesive message. About 20 people attended the meeting at the Basalt library and about half spoke.

Pitkin County installed two features last winter in the Roaring Fork River, upstream from the confluence with the Fryingpan River. The uppermost feature was designed to create a hole while the lower feature was intended to create a wave. The upper feature was particularly tough, especially during high water in June, numerous speakers said.

“It’s a gnarly hole,” said kayaker Denise Handrich.

The stretch of river is now “out of character” with most other stretches of the Roaring Fork River, she said. Most features are class II or III rapids while the waterpark functions more like class IV at high water, she said. Handrich urged the county to post signs to build awareness of the tougher stretch.

Another speaker agreed with the assessment of the challenge.

“If you’re a class III kayaker you don’t want to be in there at 2,500 (cubic feet per second),” said a speaker who didn’t identify himself. There was considerable debate about the park last summer.

The flow on that stretch peaked at 3,500 cubic feet per second June 19. For most of June the flow was greater than 1,000 cfs.

Experienced whitewater enthusiast Royal Laybourn said he scouted the features before running them at high water in June but still wasn’t prepared for what he encountered at the Whitewater Park. He said he “punched through” the upper feature but lost momentum between the features and got caught in the second feature.

Laybourn said he got thrown from his craft and swept downstream. The force of the river pushes people and craft toward the right bank. That’s a problem, Laybourn said, because there are boulders along the right bank and nowhere to easily climb out.

He said he tore his rotator cuff and injured a knee. His experience wasn’t unique.

“There were a lot of people losing boats, swimming and getting beat up,” Laybourn said. Other speakers concurred.

He suggested altering the left side of the structures with a “slip lane” and possibly a “glassy wave” to give river runners the option of bypassing the tough parts.

In the bigger picture, Handrich said she would like to see more diversity in the structures, appealing to river runners of different skill levels.

Quinn Donnelly, river engineer with River Restoration, said the river park was accommodating to most users earlier in the season and particularly after runoff eased in July. But like Ely, he said adjustments are needed for higher flows.

“There are tweaks that are going to happen,” he said. “Ideally, some of this stuff we’d try to address this winter.”

Donnelly said it is rare for any whitewater park to be built without needing adjustment. The structures change the hydraulics of a river and the river reacts.

Donnelly also warned that the project couldn’t be everything for everybody even after adjustments.

“It’s not an Olympic park where everything is perfectly designed,” he said.

Pitkin County Healthy Rivers’ primary goal was to protect the habitat by keeping more water in that stretch of river during low flows.

“We’re worried about keeping water in there for fish survivability,” Ely said.

The whitewater park was a secondary benefit.

Donnelly said Pitkin County and River Restoration will assess comments from the meeting and likely also make a survey available online to collect public opinion. Once that assessment takes places, officials will decide how to proceed with potential tweaks.