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From Trash to Treasure

Colorado cities and towns now value their nearby rivers for recreation and tourism and have increased access to them after years of using them as garbage dumps.

When Eric Lucas joined the City of Windsor’s staff in 2015, one of his first thoughts was really more of a question: Why aren’t they doing more with the Poudre River?

The river ran through town, after all, and most of the time, cities took advantage of that. Estes Park built walkways and lookouts over the Big Thompson as it carved through downtown. Four years later, in a survey of residents, one of the top requests for amenities was access to the river. Lucas hadn’t realized it, but Windsor residents were requesting the same.

He responded with the Eastman Park River Experience, a $1.5 million project that features a milelong place to float in a tube or kayak or whatever else residents desire. While it’s free to float, the city will rent you a tube for $5, as well as a golf cart valet service where someone will drive you back to the start. Last year the city rented 2,100 tubes during the summer season, and that was with Windsor closing the attraction for 30 days because of high water. It went so well that the city is building an expansion and has plans for a third phase.

“It’s changed the face of the park,” Lucas says.

Northern Colorado’s recent embrace of the Poudre is emblematic of the way Colorado cities and towns have rediscovered their rivers in the last decade (or two, for some closer to the mountains).
Fort Collins, Windsor’s neighbor, built a whitewater park a few years ago where people can tube a rapid or two, as well as a place for residents to relax and enjoy the river. The city now has developed a Poudre River Downtown Plan, which includes improvements to parks with access to the river and miles of ways residents can use the river as much as cyclists use bike lanes.

Greeley, Windsor’s other neighbor, is even looking for ways to give residents access to the Poudre, though anything substantial is probably a few years down the road.

“Interestingly, even weirdly, Colorado has more manmade whitewater features than any other state in the country,” says Nik White, the access and conservation director at Colorado Whitewater and the owner of Whitewater Workshop, a company that teaches whitewater paddling in Golden.

Golden’s Clear Creek Whitewater Park is one of the better examples, and it’s a mixed blessing for White. The area has grown so much that places are charging for parking and tube rental companies have cropped up. The weekends in the summer are packed and a boon to the local downtown restaurants, coffeehouses and bars. But it’s so packed now that White can’t use Clear Creek anymore to teach his classes.

White prefers people use rivers rather than ignore them. “The more we get people out on rivers,” he says, “the more they become advocates of them.”

At the Glenwood Wave on the Colorado River is known, thrill seekers ride the water on all sorts of equipment including kayaks, rafts, and boogie boards.

Not Just a River, An Identity

Jon Harman, 40, lives in Glenwood Springs, a place he’s spent most of his life. He remembers, as a kid, not seeing the Colorado or Roaring Fork rivers as places to play. He saw them as big moving garbage cans. “People used to dump their trash in them,” Harman says.

That was decades ago, of course, but it does show how attitudes about the river have changed. Some towns, such as Salida, have made their nearby rivers their identity. It seems hard to believe now—the town refers to The Arkansas as the “beating heart of downtown Salida” on its web page—but even as late as 1997, it was diverted into a flood-control ditch and an unofficial dumping ground, built up with concrete debris to maximize space for the rail yard.

The trains stopped running in 1997, and two years later, the new Arkansas River Trust began to raise money and form a plan to unleash the river and create a whitewater park. That park became only the second in Colorado.

Since then Salida’s recreation department teaches paddling classes, something they’ve done for close to two decades, says “Diesel” Post, the parks and recreation director, and gives free swimming lessons to elementary school students. Salida also partners with Fibark, a community paddling nonprofit that encourages residents to discover paddlesports with huge whitewater events and programs, including many that give those aged 6 to 18 the chance to participate in whitewater kayaking and boating.

“We are a river community, and we know that,” Post says. “We want to make sure we have a safe and passionate paddling population.”

Post says publications have joked about the town being run by former river guides, and that’s fine with him. He was one himself, and Salida has had at least one mayor who was a river guide. He calls Salida a community “built on the river economy.”

“It’s really the lifeblood of our downtown area,” Post says. “We used to turn our backs to it. Now it’s where we reflect and play and chill out.”

Glenwood Springs built its first manmade whitewater feature on the nearby Colorado River, and the city uses it to balance recreational use on the river, where outfitters also take people down rapids most of the summer. The park features a standing wave with flows as high as 22,000 cubic feet per second (very fast-moving). During the peak, the park looks like one giant wave train.

Tubing on the Colorado is possible, but only on distinct sections and in late summer. Most boaters will avoid rivers in late spring, says Lisa Langer, director of tourism for Visit Glenwood, except for more experienced ones. There are beachy areas near the Atkinson Canal Trail along the nearby Roaring Fork River more suitable for tubing, and Kiwanis Park, also on the Roaring Fork, is another good option. But the city also embraces the fact that it’s a great place to visit for rafting adventures.

“We really do like to push our visitors to the outfitters,” Langer says. “They have the knowledge and experience.”

This does not stop Harman from taking visitors down a river on his own raft, though he tries to avoid the wildest water.

“There’s a lot of different spots where you can put in and take out,” Harman says. “It’s really, really nice. You can plan how long you want to be on the river. You can do a 10-hour float or a two-hour float. It’s different than the guided trips. Those are fun, but it’s nice to have your own deal and your own cooler. You can just hang out.”

From Rapids to RICDs

Of course, as with most nice things, there’s a little controversy behind the dozens of whitewater parks Colorado communities have built over the last 20 years. Places build these parks to get water rights to secure flows that may not otherwise occur through, say, their downtowns. Those are called Recreational In-Channel Diversion Water Rights, or RICDs, and they set a minimal stream flow between structures to support recreation. More than a dozen whitewater parks were built with RICDs, and there are more than 125 stretches of whitewater available for rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddling, or tubing.
The advocacy group American Whitewater proposed in 2021 that communities should have the right to file for RICDs without those whitewater parks. That plan was scrapped, but RICDs did contribute to the explosion of water features, not just because cities wanted to attract tourists, White said, even though one hasn’t been filed since 2013.

“I’m pretty stoked about them, though,” he says. “I paddle on them all the time.”

There are concerns about cities diverting water for recreational use, including the water quality, increased trash and the fact that some low head dams and their recirculating currents are called “drowning machines” by search and rescue operators. But RICDs do have ecological benefits as well, White said, including providing habitat for fish, which, in turn, increases opportunities for anglers.
Tourism remains a reason communities continue to think about ways to improve access to their nearby rivers, but it’s not as much of a factor as it once was.

“Buena Vista is really grappling with the tourism issue,” says Liz Morgan, executive director of the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce. “For a few decades, everyone was all about creating events, and now we are packed.”

Buena Vista still hosts Paddlefest to kick off the summer, but its proximity to the Arkansas River (one of the most rafted in the world), as well as several 14ers, makes it a popular summer destination Now the water events have a new goal: provide recreation for people who live here.

“There are people who travel around to see the different water parks,” Morgan says. “But we don’t need to be thinking about tourism as much as we’re thinking about the quality of life for people who live here. Having things for them to do around here is really important. It really does improve the quality of life here.”

Dan England has worked for Colorado media for nearly 25 years, including 20 at the Greeley Tribune. He has completed more than 20 marathons and 15 ultramarathons, in peaks—including all the Colorado 14ers and Mount Rainier in Washington.

Cover image: Courtesy City of Salida

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