A Whitewater Adventure

May 12, 2020
The Poudre Whitewater Park addresses stormwater and flooding issues while providing the community with opportunities for outdoor excitement.

For years, northern Colorado has been home to countless hiking trails, bike paths, fishing nooks, and parks galore—you name an outdoor activity and the chances are good NoCo has it. Just when residents thought the region had all its adventure bases covered, a one-of-a-kind venue rolled into Fort Collins: the Poudre River Whitewater Park.

The First Whitewater Park in Northern Colorado
Completed in October 2019, the Poudre River Whitewater Park is the first whitewater park to be created in northern Colorado. While rivers and water activities have always been a large part of the Front Range region, the rushing rapids of whitewater streams were reserved for mountain life. But after years of envisioning, planning, and building, the dream of northern Colorado’s own whitewater park was brought to life by a partnership between the City of Fort Collins and ECI Site Construction Management (ECI).

The park, located at 201 E. Vine Drive in north Fort Collins, was the first project built as part of an overall Poudre River improvement plan, which was approved in 2014. This unique first phase includes two primary boating features for kayakers, safe river access points, a fish
passage, a pedestrian overlook, a south bank terrace with seating, a children and family play area at the river’s edge, a bridge that connects to the Poudre Trail, and nearly a mile of new paved trails and walkways. It is adorned with 3,000 willow whips lining the river’s edge—which adds to the park’s secluded feeling, even though it is only a stone’s throw away from downtown Fort Collins. In building the park, the City’s aims were not only to provide recreational activities, but to bring the river back to a more natural state, connect the river to the downtown business area, provide safe access to the river, and improve the river floodplain.

A One-of-a-Kind Construction Venture
ECI was hired by the City of Fort Collins as the general contractor for the project due to its capabilities in the construction of elaborate outdoor environments and special experience with waterways. Even with a large portfolio of recreational parks and river projects, a whitewater park was still uncharted territory for the team. Through fastidious pre-construction and execution, the project team followed a detailed process to ensure maximum efficiency and minimize environmental impact.

“This project was the first whitewater park ECI built,” says Jeron Siegert, project manager at ECI. “It was very different from our other projects in many ways, largely because the recreational and waterway components were combined, rather than have the recreational piece be in a playground.”

The first phase consisted of setting all dewatering operations to divert the water from the south two-thirds portion of the river stretch to the north one-third portion of the stretch, allowing all work to be performed on the southern two-thirds of the channel. Once this initial phase was completed, the project team switched the flow of water from the south two-thirds to the north one-third to focus on the second stretch. During this time, a pedestrian bridge measuring 187 feet in length was installed across the river.

Reducing Flood Risks for the Future
The Poudre River Whitewater Park is unique in countless ways, one of which being the dual function as a recreational space, as well as an environmental endeavor to address flooding risks in the future. Throughout the course of the project, the Poudre River 100-year floodway was narrowed from approximately 770 feet to 325 feet wide. This change reduces flood depths and velocities in the area and provides development potential for approximately 10 adjacent commercial properties that now will be in the flood fringe. 

Furthermore, the project increased the conveyance of floodwater under the College Avenue Bridge—the main street in that area of Fort Collins—from 12,271 to 13,900 cubic feet per second. This increase will significantly reduce future flooding over College Avenue when additional upstream river projects are constructed.

Keeping Sustainability a Top Priority 
Sustainability was a chief focus from start to finish, garnering remarkable results. To minimize material waste, multiple items that needed to be removed during the construction process were later repurposed for different park aspects. For example, more than 10,000 cubic yards of rock materials are included in the river, and 100% of the river rock extracted from the Poudre River was reused within the park. Similarly, a 260-foot radius wall on the south side of the river needed to be removed during construction. Rather than discard it, the construction team incorporated it into the boulder terrace and bridge abutment for the main pedestrian bridge, as well as for boulder work for the whitewater feature.

In perhaps one of the most impressive instances of the construction and design team’s strategic innovation, three wooden benches were repurposed from trees removed from the project site and were placed throughout the park to be used as additional spots for seating.

Furthermore, the construction team delicately worked around the historical Coy diversion structure with links to the Poudre River’s storied agricultural past. This original irrigation canal previously carried irrigation water from the Poudre River to the former Coy family farm and Link-N-Greens Golf Course. Throughout the course of the project, the canal was repurposed to convey clean stormwater flows to the river. A combination of wetlands, vegetated swales, and a water quality pond improved the water quality of runoff and significantly reduced the amount of pollutants entering the Poudre River. 

Preserving Natural Inhabitants 
As to not negatively impact river inhabitants, ECI worked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and a fish biologist to install a passage in the Poudre River for safe transport of fish, while still keeping the recreational whitewater features functioning properly. Although this was a highly necessary step in the process, it was certainly not an easy feat. The project team was faced with the issue of a cross current that was affecting the wave in the whitewater portion, which was caused by low flows in the fish passage combined with the College Avenue Bridge abutment. This problem was solved through careful water engineering, resulting in a safe space for fish to travel along the river without being hindered by those using it for recreational purposes.

Overcoming Construction Challenges 
The construction of this iconic park did not come without its hurdles. The project team encountered many unexpected twists and turns that required strategic direction to overcome. During the excavation of the river bottom, a historic box culvert was discovered. Although it was challenging, the team took necessary steps to preserve it and deliver correct documentation to the state, as well as adhere to the project schedule in order to be finished with work on the river bottom portion before high-flow season.

In addition, mechanical excavations in November 2018 exposed a large structure made of wood, brick, and concrete under the Poudre River, which turned out to be a manhole. Continued excavation exposed an abandoned infiltration gallery that functioned as part of the water intake system for the decommissioned Fort Collins Municipal Power Plant nearby.

Revolutionizing Northern Colorado Outdoors Culture 
After 15 months of intense construction and engineering, the Poudre River Whitewater Park officially opened to the public during a grand opening event on October 12, 2019. Thanks to the dedication of all parties involved in the project, river enthusiasts can now enjoy increased safety while using the park. Due to the removal of the instream diversion structure and a grouted rock boat chute, kayaking, boating, and tubing will now be much safer. Furthermore, the project added safe river access points and connected paths to Fort Collins’s downtown business area. The project also improved the floodplain and preserved habitat for fish and other wildlife. 

Although the Poudre River Whitewater Park has certainly been a game-changer for water-activity lovers of all ability levels, it is also an ideal location for young families.  The park is 100% ADA accessible, and it offers a terrace with plenty of seating for those who wish to simply relax and enjoy the pleasant river ambiance. The seating area includes unique structural artwork, created by John Davis, for visitors to enjoy. The structure is part of the Art in Public Places program and features curving pieces that represent waves and whitewater bubbles.

The Poudre River Whitewater Park is a collaborative effort among numerous dedicated entities: the City of Fort Collins, ECI, Anderson Consulting Engineers, BHA Design Inc., S2O Design and Engineering, and a strategic subcontractor team. The park will be open from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. year-round for optimal visitor access throughout every season.

“ECI is proud to have partnered with the City of Fort Collins to build this exciting one-of-a-kind venue for our community,” said Ted Johnson, president of ECI. “The endeavor was collaboratively delivered under the CM/GC process, allowing this technical and challenging project to be completed and delivered within budget. This project was completed thanks to our passionate people, talented subcontractor network, creative design partners, the City of Fort Collins, and the taxpayers, donors, and community supporters who all made this project possible.” 

About the Author

Lauren Sawinska

Lauren Sawinska is executive assistant & marketing support at ECI Site Construction Management.

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