Glenwood to revisit purpose of River Commission
A night dominated by discussion about rivers, river habitat and river recreation might just have served to save the day for the Glenwood Springs River Commission.
City Council, at its Thursday meeting, put the brakes on a plan to combine the city’s separate Parks and Recreation and River commissions, following pleas from river advocates for the city to maintain an advisory panel focused on cleaning up, restoring, protecting and preserving the city’s waterways and riparian zones.
Recently, at the suggestion of some council members and city staff, the city put together a proposal to combine the two advisory commissions, partly because of some overlapping duties related to recreation trails planning, construction and maintenance. Waning participation by some of the appointed commission members also weighed into the thinking.
It was that decision several years after the River Commission was formed, essentially putting the river stewards in charge of carrying out the city’s river trails master plan, that pulled the commission away from its original mission, said Steve Smith, who sat on the commission for several years after it was formed in the early 1990s.
“Your timing couldn’t be better,” Smith said, urging council to instead revisit the mission of the River Commission and possibly remove trails from its purview.
“Trails were never a primary purpose of the River Commission, and it would be better for that group to turn its attention again to matters of river health,” Smith said.
Having the River Commission take lead on planning for the river trails made sense to the extent that trails needed to be properly routed to protect the riverbanks and sensitive riparian areas, he said.
Improving access to the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers also served to introduce people to the river ecosystem, so that they would be more likely to appreciate and care for it, Smith added.
Several proposals that happened to come before council that same night point up the need for a river advisory group, Smith and others said.
• A proposal for a temporary fishing boat ramp near the new 14th Street pedestrian bridge during the upcoming Grand Avenue bridge detour; an idea council was lukewarm to partly because of potential river impacts.
• A plan to place a changing station near the Two Rivers Park boat ramp for rafters and other river users.
• A council decision to appoint outgoing Councilor Stephen Bershenyi to represent Glenwood on the “Raise the River” project, which is aimed at creating a permanent flow in the Colorado River that would be adequate to restore the Mexican delta.
Rick Lafaro, executive director for the nonprofit Roaring Fork Conservancy, said his organization is willing to offer its expertise on river health matters in Glenwood Springs, but an advisory board is a useful tool to help direct the city’s efforts.
“A lot of people are unaware of the challenges that these rivers face,” Lafaro said, noting that riverfront landowners often build structures and clear vegetation on riverbanks without realizing the negative impacts it can have.
“It’s important to restore some of that healthy, messy vitality in the riparian areas,” he said.
Newly elected City Councilor Shelley Kaup also weighed in on the issue.
“I was distressed when I heard about the potential for combining these two commissions,” she said. “The rivers are an important part of who we are and our character.”
City staff often doesn’t have the time to research and advise on matters related to river habitat, which is the value of having a citizen advisory group, Kaup said.
Where Parks and Recreation is focused on maintenance of city parks and overseeing recreation programs, the River Commission has its own distinct duties and responsibilities, she said.
Council members, after hearing the comments, tended to agree that combining the commissions might not be the best move.
“We define ourselves by water,” Councilor Leo McKinney said of the Glenwood Chamber’s marketing focus on all things related to water as a way to promote Glenwood Springs.
“Before we had the River Commission, there were pieces of cars if not whole cars in the river that had to be removed,” McKinney said. “I would prefer to see us redefine the duties of the commission.”
“A great deal of the blame for the perceived failure of the River Commission rests right here on council, because we have tended to give them tasks that weren’t a fit for what they were doing, namely trails,” he said. “That should rest with parks.”
Councilor Kathryn Trauger said council would do well to have more regular communication with all of the city’s advisory boards and commissions.
“My mind has also shifted on this, and I agree that a lot of the fault lies with council for not giving better direction to this commission,” Trauger said, adding, “Trails is not a good match with the River Commission.”
Council may also look to reduce the size of the River Commission, which now stands at nine and often makes it hard to get a quorum for meetings.
Two vacant positions on the commission will also be re-advertised in hopes of making new appointments in May.