By Eugene Buchanan
PROJECT: Clear Creek Whitewater Park
OWNER: Golden (Colo.) Parks and Recreation Department
CONTRACTOR: Recreation Engineering & Planning, Boulder, Colo.
WATER RIGHTS: $405,000
MAINTENANCE: $25,000 every other year
ANNUAL REVENUE: $2.5 million to $4 million
Golden, Colo., Public Works Director Dan Hartman always knew that Clear Creek, which flows through downtown, could be far more than just a water source for the nearby Coors beer factory. The kayaker and rafter reasoned it could also be used like the sections he paddled upstream. So in 1997 he began turning it into the country's first publicly funded whitewater park, setting off a movement to bring adventure sports to “municipal backyards.”
The concept wasn't new. Tennessee had just spent $27 million turning the Ocoee River near the City of Ducktown into a dam-controlled canoe slalom course for the 1996 Olympic Games. Closer to home, hydrologist Gary Lacy, owner of Boulder, Colo.'s Recreation Engineering & Planning (REP), had recently designed a park for kayakers and other paddlecraft users on Boulder Creek
What was new was Hartman's idea for a park fully funded by taxpayer dollars. “We used funds committed to parks, which included state lottery money, open space money, and a little of our parks capital money,” he says. The minimal cost and simple implementation made his proposal an easy city council sell.
The second hurdle: administering the project through two city departments. “Public works oversaw bank stability and permitting, including nationwide 404 [for work in wetlands and other waters] and erosion permits. Parks oversaw the contract budget and coordinated with funding entities,” explains Hartman.
The first phase, building the seven westernmost structures in the river, cost about $175,000 and was completed in 1998. In 2002, the city added seven more drops for another $225,000.
Today, the 13 drops and other features of the 800-foot-long course draw kayakers from all over the country. According to an economic impact report by Stratus Consulting, the park brings in 40,000 visitors and $2.5 million to $4 million annually. Admission is free; revenue comes in the form of increased sales tax collections from visitors buying everything from gasoline to meals and lodging. “The benefit is easily twice what we expected,” Hartman adds, “and its use continues to explode.”
Other parks around the state are similarly successful. Stratus Consulting reports that features like the manmade waves and hydraulics, or “holes”— made from strategically placed boulders and gradient enhancements — that kayakers, rafters, and even inner-tubers flock to in Golden, on the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs, and on the Arkansas River in Salida add as much as $7.2 million annually to local coffers.
“Our park impacts all of downtown,” adds REP's Mike Harvey, who runs the company's riverside office in downtown Salida. “Our annual FIBArk boat race festival used to be a loss leader and now it makes more than $50,000 each year. And it's all due to the park. It's like South Beach, Rocky Mountain-style.”
This year, parks on the North Fork Payette River in Idaho and the Bow River in Alberta, Canada, opened. In Michigan, four are under way in hopes of creating an economic engine that relies on water instead of gasoline. Parks were recently unveiled in Illinois and Iowa.
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In 2001 the first city to fund a whitewater park solely through taxpayer dollars won a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court guaranteeing minimum flows. By doing so, Golden created a new fork in the state's convoluted water-rights landscape.
Unlike other states, in Colorado water is a property that can be claimed by demonstrating first use or “beneficial” use, and rights are based on prior appropriation. Infrastructure managers had to prove that their design would capture, control, and divert Clear Creek; use the water beneficially; and provide the minimum flow necessary for a reasonable recreational experience. (Flows range from a low of 70 cubic feet/second [cfs] in low-water months and up to 1,000 cfs during the runoff months. See table below.) In this case, the beneficial use of water provides an amenity that increases the city's sales tax revenues.
“We were stunned with the park's success and concerned that loss of peak flows would reduce the benefit,” explains Public Works Director Dan Hartman. “In fact, we spent considerably more on securing the water right than we did on developing the first phase of the park.”
The Recreational In-Channel Diversion water right ensures a certain minimum flow, when water is available, before any future upstream developments (i.e., golf courses) can make a play for it. Unlike other water rights, it's also nonconsumptive, meaning it can still be used to satisfy other downstream rights.
Vail, Breckenridge, Pueblo, Gunnison, and Steamboat Springs quickly followed suit to secure recreational flows for their parks. Earlier this year, the Grand County Board of Commissioners applied for surface water rights associated with two pending whitewater parks on the Colorado River.
“The Golden decision was the big breakthrough for recreational water rights cases,” says water attorney Steve Bushong of Denver's Porzak, Browning and Bushong. “These municipalities are trying to protect their investment, and the parks provide the diversion and control necessary to meet the right's requirements. It's the new West.”
Colorado — which hosted the first international white-water park conference in 2005 in Glenwood Springs and another last year in Salida — leads the pack with nearly 30 such parks, nearly half of the country's total. They're funded by the municipalities and grants from such entities as the Colorado Lottery and state Department of Natural Resources, and located wherever there's water, gradient, and people. “The park balances out our tourist season, eliminating the slower economic periods of the year,” says Glenwood spokesperson Vicky Nash. “It's a great asset to the community.”
In many cases, they also turn outdated and dangerous low-head dams into amenities. For example, in 2010 the town of Lawson — 30 miles upstream from Golden — rebuilt a stretch of river damaged by construction of a nearby interstate. Restoration involved removing hazardous culverts and adding a clear-span bridge. The whitewater features allow the river to return to a more healthy state while providing a venue for boaters of varying skill levels. Terracing, riverwalks, and handicap-accessible trails provide attractive spectator areas.
Maintenance and future plans
Hartman budgets $25,000 every other year for upkeep like fixing rocks that shift and removing sediment. The city has used up the river's available stream gradient and therefore can't expand the park, but related improvements are part of a creek corridor master plan.
“The plan isn't complete — it's meant to be a long-term plan over the next 40 years or so — but it does include a fair amount of changes adjacent to the park,” he says. These include a small water feature intended to offer wading opportunities for children, as well as a trail on the south side. “But the whitewater park itself has been a resounding success and has totally revitalized downtown.”
— Buchanan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former editor in chief of Paddler magazine and a former reporter for the Denver Business Journal.