With a few weeks left in the whitewater boating season in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), river rangers, aquatic biologists and outfitters are praising a new $9.1 million boat chute/fish ladder that opened on the Arkansas River this spring, allowing navigation from Leadville past Cañon City for the first time since 1964.
The Homestake Arkansas River Diversion, located near Granite, north of Buena Vista, was built by Colorado Springs Utilities and Aurora Water to replace an intake structure that feeds water into the nearby Otero Pump Station for transport to the Front Range communities’ drinking water systems.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, (CPW) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board contributed $1.2 million to support the project and the Pueblo Water Board donated easements necessary to construct and maintain the diversion.
The new structure created three channels in the river as part of the new intake for the Homestake Project trans-mountain raw water collection, storage and delivery system. One channel is a 650-foot-long boat chute with six drop structures and pools designed to improve safety for whitewater kayaks and rafts. Another channel is a fish passage that allows fish, primarily rainbow and brown trout, to swim upstream and spawn in the fall. The middle lane of the structure is a spillway during high water flooding events, typically in the spring runoff.
Tom Waters, Operations Manager of the AHRA, praised the new diversion as a huge improvement over the old structure that required boaters from Leadville to leave the water and portage, or carry, their kayaks or rafts around it to avoid a dangerous dam.
And he noted experienced whitewater enthusiasts are glad the diversion didn’t make the upper stretch of the Arkansas easier. Just more accessible and provided different options for recreating on this section of river.
“Prior to this, it was a mandatory portage under most circumstances,” Waters said. “For the utility partners to put so much time, money and effort into this is huge. They are meeting their water needs, the needs for fish passage and providing for recreational needs. And they did it in an aesthetically pleasing way. It looks great.”
Equally enthusiastic about the structure is Josh Nehring, CPW’s senior aquatic biologist for the Southeast Region.
“It was a big project for the partners to get it designed properly to accommodate both boat and fish passage,” Nehring said. “We’re pretty certain fish will be able to move through it. In fact, we’re going to study it this fall when brown trout are moving up river to spawn.”
CPW aquatic biologist Michael Atwood in Salida plans to survey the river above, through and below the structure using electroshock equipment. He’ll catch brown trout, mark them and then survey after the spawn to see if they did, indeed, make it upstream.
“We’ll try to verify if fish are, in fact, moving through it,” Atwood said. “We’ll see if we can tell if any of the tagged fish have migrated upstream through the structure.”
Construction started in 2018 and it was a challenging two-year experience for the builders but worth it, said Senior Project Engineer for Colorado Springs Utilities Brian McCormick.
“This project both improved the operation and reliability of the river intake and reduced risk for river users,” McCormick said. “And we wanted to add the boat chute to open this 136-mile stretch of river for navigation.”
To enhance the whitewater experience and avoid dangerous hydraulics, the utilities employed computerized design technology and constructed a 1/12th scale model to study flows. Then they placed boulders in the chutes individually to assure water flows were safe for boaters and allowed optimum fish passage.
McCormick noted the AHRA didn’t exist in 1964 when the intake and diversion were originally constructed and river recreation was not a design priority as it was today. He, too, praised the partnership that allowed the project to happen.
“Today, there are multiple demands placed on our rivers including water supply and recreation,” McCormick said. “We’re proud to be part of such a unique partnership that is able to satisfy so many needs of our customers.”
Praise also came from Bob Hamel, executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association.
“The diversion works fine,” Hamel said. “We’re grateful they built the boat chute to accommodate our activity. The people who ran it appreciated not having to portage.”
Written by Bill Vogrin. Bill is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife southeast region.