BASALT — Pitkin County needs to make Basalt’s whitewater park safer. That was the refrain from most of those who spoke at Wednesday night’s public meeting.
“We are not asking for a big change to the kayak park,” said Glenwood Springs resident Elizabeth Bailey. “What we are asking for is a way to get through these monster features.”
Bailey was among those boaters whose rafts were flipped by the lower wave during some of the Roaring Fork River’s highest flows of the season. Bailey, an experienced rafter, said that because the river pushes boats to the right-hand side of the lower wave feature, there needs to be a boat chute to the right, between the hydraulic that forms at high flows and the river bank.
Currently, the only way around the wave is a narrow, hard-to-spot “sneak” on the left side.
The injuries Bailey sustained June 16 sent her to the hospital.
“For that to happen in a manmade park, there needs to be some responsibility,” she said.
Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams hosted Wednesday’s meeting at the Basalt Town Hall to gather public comment about the whitewater park’s two consecutive wave features, which some say became dangerous during this year’s high runoff. The lower of the two waves seemed to present the bigger challenge, even for experienced boaters.
The two structures, built with concrete during the winter of 2016-17, were re-engineered the following winter after complaints that the artificial waves were dangerous. But the low flows of the spring and summer of 2018 did not provide a fair test to see whether the problems had been fixed.
The features are supposed to create fun, recreational play waves at flows between 240 and 1,350 cfs. The river was flowing at about 2,500 cfs the day Bailey was thrown from her boat.
Healthy Rivers Chair Andre Wille said the county’s ultimate goal is to make the best whitewater park they can.
“We are pretty committed to getting it right,” he said.
Quinn Donnelly of Carbondale-based River Restoration, the firm that designed the park, led the public meeting and presented a few options for making the lower wave safer. Crews could lower the “wings” on both features, creating a path around the wave on either side, or a channel could be created around the left side of the wave.
Another idea was to create a “catcher’s mitt” eddy just below the second wave so that boaters who get tossed from their crafts can more easily swim to shore.
But some said creating a way for boaters to get around the waves didn’t go far enough — the waves themselves need to be made safer.
“Here you have two terrifying holes,” Kirk Baker said. Baker is the founder of the Aspen Kayak School and is an expert kayaker. “You should not have to go around. You should be able to go through. … You have to fix the hazard you created.”
Royal Laybourn agreed. Laybourn was also the victim of a flipped boat — he said the wave put him in the hospital.
“You can’t create a hazard and it doesn’t matter what water level it is,” he said. “You’re under a mandate to correct that. … Let’s just make it so any dummy can roll down through there.”
Pitkin County chose the site for the whitewater park, which is just upstream from downtown Basalt, in part because it is just above the Roaring Fork’s confluence with the Fryingpan River. That made it a good place to establish a recreational in-channel diversion water right.
But that part of the river is also steep, Donnelly said, meaning hydraulics will not wash out, but, rather, become bigger as flows increase.
Any new modifications to the wave features that the county and River Restoration decide on will probably come this winter.
“We want it to be as safe as possible,” Donnelly said. “It is a river and there are hazards, but this was put in by people and it’s held to a higher standard.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the Oct. 17 edition of the Times, as well as in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.