Road trip: Officials host opening for Gore Canyon Whitewater Park in Colorado
After more than six years of planning, the Colorado River is home to a brand-new whitewater park, and it’s much more than a pretty plaything.
On July 13, officials from Grand, Summit and Eagle counties hosted a grand opening for the Gore Canyon Whitewater Park, a $1.7 million project found within steps of the popular Pumphouse Campground and recreation area outside of Kremmling. The ceremony was a bona fide celebration for river rats, with kayak and stand-up paddleboard demonstrations from American Whitewater veterans, along with just about anyone who wants to test their mettle on the new waves.
For officials, it was also a celebration of High Country collaboration. The park isn’t just a million-dollar amenity: It’s the cornerstone of a plan to protect water rights and recreational water use far into the future.
“It took over six years to make this come to fruition, to build a playground on the Colorado River, not beside it,” said Caroline Bradford, the park project coordinator. “What makes this special is it allows for legal protection of recreational water rights, so that future boaters will always have water to enjoy.”
Oddly enough, Colorado water law says that any waterway requires a manmade, engineered structure before the flows can be legally protected. The Lower Blue River in Summit County is a prime example, with consistent, reliable flows thanks to the manmade Dillon Dam.
But the Gore Canyon stretch of the Colorado River wasn’t so lucky — until now. Spurred by Grand County, officials in all three counties recognized just how important the Pumphouse to Iridium stretch is for anglers, raft guides and local boaters. It needed similar protection, and given the popularity of water-bound recreation in the area, a whitewater park was the natural choice. More than 75,000 people paddle the stretch every summer, split evenly between commercial and private users.
“Recreation is an important part of the economy for folks at the headwaters,” said Bradford, referring to mountain communities along the Colorado River. “The summer economies in Grand, Summit and Eagle counties are very tied to the health of our rivers, and being able to have good fishing and good boating for future generations protects our economy.”
Location, location, location
Beginning in 2009, Grand County officials approached American Whitewater to pinpoint a location for the whitewater park. They looked at multiple sites along the Colorado River, including above and below the current site, but the Pumphouse area was a natural choice.
For recreational users, it comes down to location. Pumphouse sits almost perfectly between the upper section of Gore Canyon, home to Class V whitewater late into August, and the campsites of State Bridge and Radium Hot Springs, both popular stops for mellow Class II float trips.
“The Pumphouse recreation site already has a lot of infrastructure in place,” Nathan Fey with the Colorado office of American Whitewater said. “Aside from the existing amenities there, you really split the hairs between Class V and Class II water. It creates a freestyle play-boating opportunity in the middle of all this existing infrastructure.”
For officials, location is another key factor, but for slightly different reasons. As Colorado’s population continues to boom, Denver Water will continue pulling more and more water from the Colorado River and connected reservoirs. Flows below Dillon and Granby reservoirs are already protected, and by ensuring regular flows through the Pumphouse area, users as far west as Grand Junction will benefit.
“What better way to maximize the use of our water, the water that’s going to Fruita and Grand Junction and Palisade, than to build business around having consistent flows on the river?” Fey said. “The play park provides a great opportunity to really maximize the use, maximize the benefits of the waterway without impacting other users.”
The promise of a new whitewater park convinced officials to put their money forward. More than $600,000 of the total $1.7 million came from Grand County taxpayers, with another $500,000 coming from a state grant through the Colorado Basin Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The remainder was funded by Eagle County and other, smaller grants.
Summit County didn’t contribute monetarily to the project, but Summit County Commissioner (and avid boater) Karn Stiegelmeier said that supporting it through public awareness and advocacy was a must.
“I think there is an increasing awareness and respect and sense of responsibility for protecting these river corridors,” Stiegelmeier said. “It’s an appreciation of the natural values and wildlife we have here, as well as recreation and just plain aesthetics. This is very exciting because we have been feeling more and more momentum to protect these water systems. They are our lifeblood.”
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