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Additions to Whitewater Park draw concern, criticism from boaters

Rafting companies say city created an unnatural hazard
Rafting companies are expressing concern that two new additions to the Durango Whitewater Park have created a major safety concern.

As the Animas River approaches peak flow, concerns are being raised that the city of Durango created a hazard when it added two new rapids to the Whitewater Park, resulting in many rafting companies choosing to bypass the park for safety reasons.

“It’s an unnatural hazard at the entry of the park, and it creates a rafting experience we’re not selling to our guests,” said Alex Mickel, owner of Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours. “It’s just been unfortunate.”

Since the 1980s, the city has made tweaks to the Whitewater Park, which flows alongside Santa Rita Park.

But in summer 2016, the city spent $1 million to create two new features just above the park with the sole purpose of diverting more water into the city’s water intake for municipal use.

It’s these new features that are drawing criticism and concern as the Animas River rises to higher-than-normal flows for the first time since the ledges were built. As of Friday, the river had usurped 6,000 cubic feet per second (the Animas usually peaks at around 4,700 cfs).

“They’re manmade nightmares,” said James Wilkes, co-owner of Mountain Waters Rafting. “They’re just not natural, and it’s very difficult for a raft to pass through it.”

Wilkes said the two features are unavoidable and span the entire length of the river, essentially functioning as a low-head dam, one of the biggest safety hazards on a river because of the strong recirculating current that can trap boats and kayaks.

If a boat flips or people fall out at the spot, they have a long, cold swim through the entire Whitewater Park, which has several major rapids and icy water temperatures in the low 40s.

“The further up the rapid the trouble potentially is encountered, the more significant the consequences of a swim are,” Mickel said. “If people fall out at the entry of the rapids, they’re in for a very long, cold and bumpy swim.”

Mickel said Mild to Wild used to run trips down the Whitewater Park at high water before the new additions were added a few years ago. But now, he said trips put-on the river below the Whitewater Park in a safer stretch of the waterway.

Matt Wilson, owner of 4 Corners Whitewater, also said he no longer sends trips down the Whitewater Park since the new features were built.

“I go and look and don’t want to send my people down there anymore,” he said.

Wilkes said Mountain Waters still runs the Whitewater Park, selling the trip as a Class IV, serious experience accompanied by a safety boat. Customers are required to wear helmets, wetsuits and sign an additional waiver.

Wilkes said his best river guides who typically run the Class V upper Animas River, a section of rapids below Silverton, have taken over the town section at high water.

“It’s no place for kids or families,” Wilkes said. “And it’s just unfortunate, I feel, because it has scared a lot of the casual weekend family boats off the river. No one wants to deal with it.”

Calls to several city officials were not returned Friday.

Mickel said he heard the city wanted to try to improve those two features during the fall and winter, when water is low and work can be done in the river, but the work was unable to get started. He said he’s heard that work will happen when the river level goes down.

The Animas River, according to the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, is expected to peak this weekend at around 7,000 cfs and continue at high flows for the foreseeable future, with a lot of snowpack still in the high country of the San Juan Mountains ready to come down.

For now, most raft companies will take customers down below the Whitewater Park to the Dallabetta or Basin Creek take out.

“The river couldn’t be more fun south of town,” Mickel said.


Jun 20, 2021
Photo: Working on the rapids Whitewater Park in Durango
Jun 20, 2021
Whitewater Park dedication scheduled
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