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Pricey Eagle whitewater park proposed … again

Corey Reynolds
Vail correspondent
A kayaker pulls a "bow stall" as he floats toward the Class 4-plus waters of the Dowd Chutes near Minturn, Colorado where Gore Creek meets the Eagle River. (Shane Macomber/Vail Daily)
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EAGLE – An irrigation ditch on the Eagle River adjacent to the Eagle County Fairgrounds needs improvement, and Eagle County engineers have a plan to both increase water flow to the ditch and create a world-class recreational whitewater park in about 500 feet of the river.

But with a price tag of up to $1.3 million, officials have some reservations about proceeding with the project.

County engineer Phillip Bowman, said the county’s first priority is to improve the functioning of the irrigation headgate, located right next to the truck parking lot at the fairgrounds. When the water level of the river drops, water no longer flows into the irrigation ditch. An initial estimate on a project solely to get the ditch working again was $800,000.

With the recent increased popularity in whitewater sports, the county now believes it is possible to fix the ditch and create a whitewater park in a location that would be perfect for boaters.

Commissioner Tom Stone said the river’s drop in elevation, the great viewing area, and the ease of accessibility at the fairgrounds make the location great. Eagle kayaker Lori Russell agrees.

“This is a wonderful stretch that could be used by boaters,” she said.

Russell said that stretch of the Eagle River is currently unsafe, but that there is the perfect amount of water and a perfect drop to create a man-made water park. Most boaters leave the river before the fairgrounds.

“Now there is a humongous, gnarly hole that would just trash most boaters,” she said. “There are many more miles of river to be boated there.”

Russell has been proposing a whitewater park at the fairgrounds location for years, but said she has run into plenty of “politics and red tape.”

“They like the idea – they don’t want to spend the money,” she said.

Bowman said the county rejected previous proposals for a whitewater park because the plans did not adequately address the priority of fixing the irrigation ditch. For rafters and kayakers, the current design proposal puts two drops in the river, one “wave” and one “hole,” while also increasing the amount of water flowing into the county irrigation ditch.

Bowman said the designer has told the county the whitewater park could be the “best in the west” because of the wave. Most whitewater parks have only recirculating hole features. The wave at the Eagle park could place the region on the river sports map.

“At peak flows, the design would create a whitewater feature that is unlike any other,” he said.

Such a unique feature could boost local economies with increased tourism, the county hopes. A consulting firm hired by the county found that most similar whitewater courses produce about $2 million in annual visitor spending, and that is without such a unique water feature. One report estimates that a whitewater park in Steamboat Springs could bring in over $80 million in the next 20 years.

But county commissioners are still weary about the high initial costs, and have requested the county staff to research possible alternatives, including only fixing the irrigation ditch flow without designing for a whitewater course. The county is also searching for funding partners to make the whitewater park option possible.


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