With efforts to construct a play wave for river runners in the Animas River at the 29th Street put-in falling flat, the city of Durango will instead conduct regular maintenance and stream bank stabilization, hopefully this winter.
Scott McClain, the city of Durango’s assistant parks director, said the project will focus on stabilizing the bank on the west side of the Animas River, right below the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tracks.
“The river has been cutting the bank for quite a while,” McClain said. “The concern is, if we don’t do anything, river right will continue to erode and possibly jeopardize the (D&SNG tracks).”
McClain added there also would be minor reinforcement of boulders toward the east side of the river, just above the pool where river runners put in at 29th Street.
“Its been washed out,” he said. “So we’ll reinforce that.”
Cathy Metz, the city’s Parks and Recreation director, said the project is out for bid to engineers. Ideally, a two-week construction project would begin mid-March and finish before high water starts in spring, she said.
“This really is a maintenance and bank stabilization project,” Metz said.
It appears, however, this wasn’t the project’s original intent, according to local river runner Aaron Lombardo.
Lombardo said he came up with the idea to create a play wave – basically a standing wave for freestyle kayaking and surfing – at the 29th Street put-in a few years ago, and he then started fundraising.
The project was just about to start, Lombardo said, when the city of Durango abruptly changed the aim of the project from creating a play wave to a bank stabilization project to benefit the railroad.
“None of that money is going to a play wave; it’s going to fix the (railroad’s tracks),” he said. “It’s such a bummer.”
The city of Durango has rebutted many of Lombardo’s comments.
After the Animas River Trail was completed through Memorial Park a few years ago, the city of Durango removed a pump station at 29th Street, and in the process cracked a water line running beneath the Animas River that needed to be replaced.
Once the water line replacement project was completed, Lombardo said the city asked him to help rebuild features in the Animas, which created a convenient eddy on the east side of the river for the put-in, as well as a beach area and some fish habitat.
About a year later, Lombardo said, that he got the idea to build a play wave.
“It’s perfect for it,” he said.
Lombardo then started to raise funds for the project, ultimately raising about $3,000 on GoFundMe and an additional $7,000 or so through private donations. He also secured about $25,000 worth of boulders donated by C&J Gravel.
C&J Gravel did not return a Herald phone call asking for comment.
This summer, Lombardo said all the agencies involved – the city of Durango, the Army Corps of Engineers, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and D&SNG – were all on the same page and in support of the play wave.
But then, one day in late summer, Lombardo said the Durango Utilities Department called him and said a professional engineer would need to be hired, citing concerns about liability.
The city’s McClain said Lombardo was told for months a professional engineer would be hired. Ultimately, Shane Sigle of Riverwise Engineering, who designed the Durango Whitewater Park, was brought on.
Sigle also did not return a call seeking comment.
Regardless, Lombardo remained part of the project. But while delivering the donated boulders for the project this fall, he took heavy machinery into the Animas River and began doing some work, catching the ire of city officials.
To conduct any work in a river, it almost always requires a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Lombardo said he had private phone calls and emails with Army Corps staff, and was given permission to start construction. The city of Durango, however, pointed out no permits had been attained.
“He did not go through procedures the city would undertake to get into the river; we’re doing that now,” Metz said. “He did that as an individual. He’s not an engineer. He did not submit plans.”
Kara Hellige, chief of the Army Corp of Engineers’ southern Colorado branch’s regulatory division, said the city of Durango was the official permittee of the project, but it was confusing whether Lombardo was an agent of the city or representing himself.
“Aaron never identified who he was representing,” she said. “Normally, when people ask us questions, they’re either the permittee or hired by the permittee. So if he’s not with the city, he has no authority to do the work.”
Hellige said the purpose of the project was clear: for river bank stabilization. Lombardo’s proposal for a play wave, she said, would have to go through an entirely different permit process.
“There might have been some confusion between (the city of Durango and Lombardo) on project purposes,” she said.
Regardless, Hellige said she never gave Lombardo the OK to start construction. Lombardo, for his part, was adamant he was given permission by Hellige.
Why the project purposes veered off between the city of Durango and Lombardo remains unclear.
What is clear is Lombardo was taken off the project after he was found this fall in the river doing work, and the city is now proceeding with a proposed river project that does not include the construction of a play wave.
Lombardo takes issue that the city might use the donated boulders to benefit the D&SNG, not river runners. It would cost too much to move and take back, he said, and the cost of delivery, about $8,000 of the donated money, is now lost.
The remaining $3,000 or so in GoFundMe, Lombardo said, may be donated to a nonprofit or another use. He said the city will now spend tens of thousands of dollars for a project he could have done for less than $10,000.
“It’s crazy the bureaucracy and the money they’re willing to spend,” he said. “It’s just mind boggling.”
Because the project is out to bid, the city declined to say how much the river bank stabilization project might cost. Metz declined to get into specifics about the donated boulder that’s on site, but it “could be used” for the city’s project.
D&SNG General Manager Jeff Johnson said the area of the river bank in question has been on the railroad’s radar, but was not a top priority. He said the D&SNG is not financially contributing to the project.
“Right now, the (river bank) is fine, but we’re glad to see it addressed,” he said. “It could have an impact in the future.”
Metz said the city will meet with river runners soon to discuss the project. While there is no immediate plan for a play wave, it could happen in the future, she said.
Lombardo, for his part, said the entire situation is a lost opportunity. He said the incident ultimately ends a 15-year relationship he’s had with the city improving the Animas River for river runners.
“Me and all the people hope they’ll get a return of the money someday, sometime in the near future,” he said.