Water park hits more snags

By GARY HARMONThe [Grand Junction]  Daily Sentinel Tuesday, November 20, 2007

It’s late November, and water levels in the Colorado River are dropping. It’s the perfect time to build in the riverbed, just as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is doing upstream from town, Palisade Town Administrator Tim Sarmo said.  Sarmo, though, is stymied — again — in his plan to build a whitewater kayak park in the river.  Palisade had hoped to build a whitewater park immediately below the Price-Stubb Diversion Dam at the mouth of De Beque Canyon.

The $2 million price tag to hook onto the Reclamation project was prohibitive, and the town had to back out last summer, so the fish-passage project is moving ahead without it. Palisade officials didn’t give up, though. They found a likely spot above Riverbend Park and set to work, getting the backers who had pledged money for the original idea to stick with them for the next edition.  They got a new kayak-park design, let bids and gathered materials, including boulders gathered up and set down near the river, ready to be dropped in as the leaves browned and the Colorado River’s levels fell.

“If I could get my Army Corps of Engineers permit today,” Sarmo said, “I’d be in the river tomorrow.”

But Palisade must wait.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the gathering of comments on Palisade’s project on Nov. 5 and is now evaluating them, said Scott Moore of the Army Corps of Engineers regulatory office in Grand Junction. The work on the whitewater park cannot begin without approval by the corps.

“I realize he’s in a rush” to get the permit, and “we’re trying to do it as quickly as we can,” Moore said of the permit application.  There is no deadline for that work, however, and “there are some natural-resource issues that are challenging” in connection with the whitewater park, Moore said.  The idea of dropping rocks into the river to create some eddies and give the river a bit more velocity in spots hardly strikes Sarmo as a major natural-resource issue, he said. “We are not building Hoover Dam,” Sarmo said, just putting some rocks in the river as part of a plan to make the big bend below 38 Road a bit of a recreational haven. Palisade’s plan calls for a $635,000 water park with vehicle access, parking and other stream-side improvements bringing the bill to about $1 million.

“I can’t think of a more innocuous, less intrusive project than this one,” he said.

Others, however, said they aren’t so sure.  The Grand Valley Irrigation Co. wrote to the Corps of Engineers demanding a full environmental review, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife said it was concerned the park might inhibit the travels of the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker up and down the river.

“A large influx of human recreation to this area may result in the modification of native fish species behavior as a consequence of human activities,” wrote Ron Velarde, northwest region manager for the wildlife division. “There is little information available that would serve to moderate our concerns for native-fish migration and their propensity to negotiate an area of significant water-based recreation.”

Wildlife officials aren’t opposed to the whitewater park, but they need more information, division spokesman Randy Hampton said.  The division’s concerns could be addressed by more information, he said.  Palisade has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and has addressed its concerns, Sarmo said.  The whitewater park plan includes a triple option for the fish to get past the park, including swimming up the main channel, negotiating a small fish-passage alongside the main current and an entirely separate channel away from the whitewater park features.  He can’t think of anything else to do to meet concerns, Sarmo said. If anything, he said, the whitewater park would strengthen the rationale for releases down the Colorado from Green Mountain Reservoir because they would serve a municipal recreational use.

Sarmo said he appreciates that the federal government has spent more than $17 million to reopen the Colorado River above the Price-Stubb to endangered fish, but he said there is a limit.

“It’s really a very simple project,” he said.

Gary Harmon can be reached via e-mail at gharmon@gjds.com.