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Vail Daily column: Plans progress on Eagle River Park

Organizers aim to create a new gateway to the Eagle River that improves river health and provides the community with a unique social and recreation space.

It's happening.

About this time every winter — the good ones, anyway — it starts to feel real. The snow piles deeper, the sun angles upward and local river runners start dreaming about the powder days to come.

That's how it works for whitewater lovers in the Eagle River Valley. Whether or not we're lucky enough to catch a ride on the fresh mountain snowfall as it's stacking up, we know our second chance will come soon enough, when the basin is brimming with the runoff of spring snowmelt. And this time around, we're dreaming bigger than ever.

Sure, everyone is stoked about a snowpack that's measuring well above average at the moment, but the reality is that runoff is still a few months away. Meanwhile, the bigger picture on the horizon has already begun to come into focus in the heart of the valley.

Less than a year after voters approved a 0.5 percent sales tax to fund park and trail improvements in the town of Eagle, community members and stakeholders have launched the design process for the town's new outdoor centerpiece known as the Eagle River Park. With a series of four whitewater wave features and significant stream improvements surrounded by a new upland park connecting the Eagle County Fairgrounds and Chambers Park, the Eagle River Park will serve as the cornerstone of the town of Eagle's visionary River Corridor Master Plan. And it's sure to be a sight to behold.

Just about everyone who has driven I-70 past Eagle is familiar with the current uninspiring view. Travelers are greeted by a muddy truck parking area accented with a pair of dumpsters and a dilapidated port-a-potty alongside the chain-link fence that inhibits access to the river. As gateways go, the ragged entrance to Eagle simply doesn't do justice to the inviting natural beauty the area is known for.

And then there's the river itself. The town's most precious resource has fallen victim to development and neglect through the years. Largely overlooked for more than a century, the Eagle River was reconfigured and unnaturally rerouted to make room for the interstate back in the 1970s, and further manipulated by diversions and bank erosion since. From Chambers Park to the Fairgrounds, it's really more of a man-made canal in need of some long overdue attention.

"It's not a healthy, natural river right now. When the interstate came in, the highway department altered the course of the river, shortened its course, and the river is still struggling to reach equilibrium with that move," said Scott Shipley, an aquatic engineer and three-time Olympic kayaking competitor, who is now dedicated to whitewater park design.

Shipley's Lyons-based company, S2O Designs, has been assigned the task of rediscovering the Eagle River's natural equilibrium and putting it on the fast track as it rolls through the town's new park. Along the way, he also has been granted the opportunity to create the free-flowing stream's signature whitewater paddling and surfing venue, an attraction with potential to transform the way Eagle interacts with its namesake river.

With the quarter-mile whitewater park forming the foundation, the goal is to create an attractive new gateway to the river that improves river health and provides the community with a unique social and recreation space that further enhances quality of life in Eagle. With a potential boost from local donors, the expectation is that the park will pay for itself by attracting throngs of visitors once it opens in summer of 2018.

"We have been talking about something like this in Eagle for as long as I can remember," said local whitewater pioneer, Darryl Bangert, owner of Sage Outdoor Adventures. "And now that it's finally happening, it's going to be a magnet for river users. That's how it always happens with these things and you are going to be amazed by the number of people — both private and commercial — that use this amenity. People want more access to the river and by opening this space up you're going to see use radiate out from Eagle both upstream and downstream. So be ready."

Shipley presented his plans, 95 percent complete, to a gathering of about 25 local paddlers in Eagle last month, explaining details of how he intends to reconfigure the currently chaotic and hazardous Rodeo rapids formed by the existing diversion structure and channel the flow into a world-class wave capable of attracting pro-level competition. The top drop of the Eagle River Park is designed to form a fast, green-water wave at the higher flows of peak runoff — with a sweet spot around 1,200 cubic feet per second — and become calm and smooth in low-flow months when tubers and floaters will fill the park.

A bypass channel created by a newly constructed island will allow casual floaters to sneak around the park's two high-energy upper features, doubling as an important upstream migration path for fish. A pair of downstream features offers progressively mellower rides designed to serve as graduated stepping stones for beginner and intermediate kayakers, stand-up paddlers and river surfers looking for a good place to practice before advancing to the park's upper end.

The objective is to create a river park that works for everyone, broadening the "Eagle Outside" brand with world-class waves for a variety of levels, safer downstream passage, improved fish habitat, an enhanced riparian ecosystem, better river access and a stabilized riverbank complete with family-friendly beaches.

But that's just phase one. Design work is also underway for the upland portion of the park on about 2.5 acres on the north side of the river. The selected design team of Alpine Engineering in Edwards and Zehren and Associates of Avon had its initial meeting with the 28-member Eagle River Park Design Steering Committee in January, where committee members representing a variety of stakeholders — ecologists, wildlife officers, river outfitters, recreational boaters, event producers, design specialists and more — were asked to rank park components ranging from parking and bathrooms to public art, landscaping and trail networks in order of importance. The feedback will be shared with the public in the coming weeks.

Upland park design is scheduled to wrap up later this summer, with construction getting underway once the in-stream features are completed the following spring.

Meanwhile, Eagle's commitment to creating the best park possible for the community is being emphasized by a robust public outreach process that includes a series of three public input sessions above and beyond suggestions from the steering committee. In addition to establishing a new and improved gateway to town, the Eagle River Park is envisioned as an amenity for all ages, abilities and recreation interests, drawing from the collaborative knowledge and creativity of the entire community.

The first formal public input meeting is coming up on Thursday, Feb. 23, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Brush Creek Pavilion in Eagle. Anyone with an interest in this project destined to change the face and future of Eagle is encouraged to offer input at that and subsequent meetings. Folks who want to get up to speed on the park's current status (and any other local outdoor activities) can find pertinent information on the town's recently refurbished website: eagleoutside.com/riverpark.

Yes, it's starting to feel real. The Eagle River Park is happening.

Local paddler Scott Willoughby is the former outdoors editor of The Denver Post and a member of the Eagle River Park Design Steering Committee. Comments and suggestions for the Eagle River Park can be submitted at http://www.eagleoutside.com.