Recreation Special Projects Manager Earl Richmond and Recreation Supervisor Shane Basford led a meeting last Tuesday evening to update the public and take their questions on the Pocket Wave 2.0 project, which has been top of mind for river users for a little over two years.
Unexpected hurdles disrupted the timeframe for the project. Originally scheduled in 2022, conflicts and a need for more funding pushed it to Fall 2023. While the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) normally drops river flow to native levels from August 15 to November 15, this year they will be moving 300 cubic feet per second (CFS) above normal flow. Construction is ideally done with the lowest water levels possible, so the water flow over the coming weeks is not ideal for work in the river.
Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers permit for the Pocket Wave 2.0 construction has a cutoff of October 1. The plan was for work to start on August 21 and finish at the end of September, but due to the increased flow, work will begin later than planned. An extension request has been submitted and the Buena Vista recreation team is going to meet with Colorado Parks and Wildlife next week to discuss the pros and cons of the extension.
Richmond broke down the new timeline into three possibilities:
- Get the extension to stay in and get it done in October;
- Complete work in the winter;
- Or, if work cannot be completed in the winter, move the construction to next fall.
CPW Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area Ranger Jeff Hammond clarified the reason for the October 1 window is to avoid work during the fish spawn.
History of the Whitewater Park and Hopes for Pocket Wave 2.0
The Buena Vista Whitewater Park began in 2000 with the first feature upstream of the Whipple Bridge. Originally built by the correctional facility vocational training program on a shoestring budget, it showed the community that river features can be for everyone, not just kayakers and rafters.
Since then the park has grown, using GOCO funding in 2004, 2008, and 2009 to build four more waves and expand the park.
The most recent in-stream project was the completion of the Pocket Wave in 2014. According to Richmond, this original Pocket Wave has not seen the desired hydraulic performance, only working well at about 1,800 CFS. this reality prompts the push for the Pocket Wave 2.0 facelift.
The goal is to remove the existing structure and rebuild it to create better performance throughout the year. The hope is to create a solid, green surfing wave to help spread out the crowds by creating an enticing new wave that is safe and enjoyable for all users.
The town has been raising funds and awareness for the project for more than two years. There have been several different designs for the wave’s upgrade. While the Pocket Wave 2.0 is inspired by the popular Scout Wave in Salida, it cannot be an exact copy of that wave due to variations in the river between the two locations.
Different widths and gradients to the river, in addition to the proximity with other waves just above and below the Pocket Wave will affect how it performs and how it needs to be built. There are also access challenges. The east side of the river is BLM land with no roads, only trails — meaning that heavy machinery cannot approach from that side.
“We have to be very specific with our approach for how to get into there and how to get out of there,” said Richmond.
Project Manager Mike Harvey with Rec Engineering and Planning, attended the meeting to explain the particulars about how the Pocket Wave 2.0 will be designed. This group has designed recreation features throughout the Arkansas River Valley and Colorado prior to this partnership with the town of BV to complete the work.
He explained that the Pocket Wave will be shifted slightly downstream of its current location. Harvey and the town hope to complete the project without impacting the performance of the Staircase Wave, which has been a popular location since it was built in 2008.
There will be a staging area just below the dog park for construction access. A section of the river will be diverted with coffer dams. Once the water is removed, teams will build as much within the first dam as possible. Then the river will be diverted over the completed section, and they will complete the rest of the work, which can be done in a wetter environment.
Luckily, the construction teams are very familiar with the river bed and the banks of the river in this area. They have worked here in the past and know many of the challenges faced after building the first Pocket Wave.
While Pocket Wave 2.0 is inspired by the Scout Wave in Salida, Harvey emphasized that, despite similarities, it is not the same geometry as the Scout Wave. Buena Vista will benefit from a year of learning on the Salida wave, which was a new type of structure. AVV reported on some of the high water issues experienced by the Scout Wave this summer. Work will be completed over the winter to address those issues in Salida, and the experience will inform the development of the Pocket Wave.
When asked why the structure of the Scout Wave was so successful compared to previous designs, Harvey explained that the Scout Wave differed in geometry from a traditional drop structure. “If you go up and down the Arkansas River, you aren’t going to find a perfect green wave for surfing anywhere,” said Harvey. “It’s a very sensitive thing, that green wave, and it doesn’t exist very often in nature, especially in the Rocky Mountains where we have relatively young rivers.”
Essentially river features built within whitewater parks mimic the geology of older rivers, he explained, which cut through bedrock to create that nice foamy wave or hole that surfers can use.
Asked about the usable water flow for the new wave, no specific answer was available. There is no reliable way to predict the exact wave shape (due to the unpredictable nature of the river), so Harvey could only talk in terms of estimates and general ranges. The idea for the Scout Wave is that it should perform well from 300 CFS to 1,500 or 1,600 CFS (once work is completed this winter). The hope is that Pocket Wave 2.0 will do the same.
A Project Built by the Community
Laura Patterson spoke about the fundraising that is fueling the project, which has been a joint effort between the town, individuals, and businesses throughout the community.
The full budget for the project is $211,000 broken down into:
- $25,000 for the initial design and permitting
- $145,000 for construction
- $45,000 for additional costs.
The Town of Buena Vista has contributed close to $85,000 with community donations between 2021 and 2023 totalling $126,000.
The Town did discuss in a previous Trustee meeting possibly contributing another $20,000 for contingency needs, but that is not official. Currently, there is an extra $5,000 in the budget and the Recreation Department is continuing to raise funds for contingencies.
There were some questions concerning the safety of the Pocket Wave 2.0 after this season’s wild summer at the Scout Wave in Salida. Richmond assured concerned attendees that having a safe passage for all types of watercrafts is an important part of the design.
The Scout Wave was a new model, and the teams learned a significant amount from that wave, completing real-time modeling with sandbags. “Nothing is guaranteed when working in a river like this,” said Harvey. “We learned from Salida, and the geometry [for the Pocket Wave] is different in a number of ways.”
“Given the differences in BV, what can you say about it turning into a really gnarly hole at high water?” asked local surfer Heidi Gerberich. Harvey explained that, while it was difficult to say for certain, Buena Vista has a different situation because of the structure of the river at the Pocket Wave and the close proximity of the Downtown Wave, which helps to control the tailwater. “It’s what’s happening above and below the structure that matters a great deal,” explained Harvey.
Richmond and Harvey emphasized the need for the community to work together in conjunction with the town to ensure users are well-educated and safe.
“One of our challenges as a municipality is to educate and remind people that you are going into an area that is not a swimming pool,” said Richmond. “The town will take the lead, but it’s going to take the whole community.”
The Arkansas River is the most commercially rafted river in the world, and river surfing has been on the rise. This is partly thanks to the construction of whitewater parks. While it does help to engage visitors with the local river culture, Richmond acknowledged that growing popularity comes with growing challenges. Plans are in the works for future seating, additional parking, updated signage to inform new and existing users, and other necessities to help ensure larger crowds can recreate safely.
The Buena Vista Whitewater Park has a Class III rapid at its exit, so typically users of the park need to be Class III comfortable unless they are river surfers parking in just one spot. Of course, there are dangers with that as well. In 2019, a male surfer drowned at the Staircase Wave. The group of town staff and surfers alike collectively agreed that something should be done in his honor to help ensure the safety of future users of the park.
More extensive signage is planned to help educate the public along with additional Personal Floatation Device (PFD) stations. Other suggestions to improve safety education included videos similar to those from Bend, Oregon’s recreation department and the extension of a pilot program in Salida that teaches water safety to third graders.
Hammond said the curriculum for the program includes the essentials of defensive swimming, how to recognize hazards and other safety necessities. The program provides a free life vest to each student when they graduate from the class, which can be swapped for an adult size when they grow out of it.
Hammond said they hoped to expand the program to the entirety of the Arkansas River Valley. Currently, the Town of Buena Vista does not offer any swift water courses.
The group also emphasized letting a lost board go if it takes off. Writing a name and contact number on a board could help recovery if it heads downstream, while accidentally swimming into the Class III rapid at the end of the park is not worth rescuing a lost item.
Earl Richmond and Shane Basford are the point people at the Recreation Department for the Pocket Wave 2.0 Project. Their contact information can be found online at buenavistarec.com.