This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
When an unseasoned paddler asks Tom Waters about an easy stretch of Arkansas River whitewater to hone skills, he directs them to the Salida Town Run from Stone Bridge to the whitewater park.
“That stretch is so perfect for people who are just getting into boating or kayaking or really all river running. Everything is easy and navigable except for that one thing, which can kill you,” said Waters, who manages the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, which stretches 152 miles along the Arkansas River.
One of the most dangerous features in that 152 miles is the low head dam upstream of Salida. The violent hydraulic below the vertical dam has dumped countless boats, sent even more people into the river and drowned at least four river runners in the past 35 years. And it’s taken a little more than a week for bulldozers and earthmovers to tear down that dam.
“It’s pretty exciting to see that thing gone, isn’t it?” Waters said.
American Whitewater has counted nine river paddlers in Colorado who drowned in low head dams since the late 1980s. Four of those fatalities — a man in a canoe in 1987, two rafters in their 70s in 2010 and a rafter from Utah in 2014 — were thrown from their boats in the dam upstream from Salida. The National Weather Service, which joins the American Society of Civil Engineers in promoting April as “Low Head Dam Public Safety Awareness Month,” calls the bank-to-bank structures “drowning machines.”
Longtime Salida locals say there was at least one additional drowning in the dam before American Whitewater started recording river incidents in the 1980s.
And there have been many more river users who were injured or needed rescuing from the powerful hydraulic beneath the 6-foot dam, including two paddlers this year. The dam is in the middle of one of the easier stretches of the Arkansas River from Granite through the Royal Gorge, a section of river that ranks as the most trafficked in the nation. Last year the Arkansas River hosted 248,000 commercial rafters who stirred an economic impact of $92 million.
The Salida low head dam was built in 1956 to divert water into the Mount Shavano State Fish Hatchery. In 1988, the city of Salida and the state funded a boat chute along the left bank of the river to allow safer passage for river users.
In 2000, Colorado Parks and Wildlife stopped channeling Arkansas River water into the hatchery as whirling disease began infecting trout in the river. The hatchery now uses ground water to support production of 2.5 million fish a year.
For more than a decade, CPW has said it wanted to tear out the low head dam but the project never climbed to the top of the agency’s lengthy maintenance list. Waters initially estimated it would cost about $1.6 million to remove the dam and the state struggled to find the funding.
Earlier this year, the Chaffee County Board of Commissioners offered Waters a $100,000 matching grant if AHRA and CPW could make the removal happen.
“That set off a flurry of activity at the Denver office,” said Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt, who owns a fly-fishing guide service on the Arkansas River. “They didn’t want to let that $100,000 slip away.”
After studying the project, CPW found a way to reduce the cost of the dam removal to something closer to $1.2 million and work started last month.
For years the riverbank above the dam has included three 4-foot-wide signs warning of the dam ahead and recommending the boat chute on the left. Every season people somehow disregard those signs and go over the dam.
“There have been close calls there every couple years, and with the increased traffic on the river, I am sure there are some that go unreported and are self-resolved,” said Danny Andres, the president of Chaffee County Search and Rescue South. “With the dam removed it is one less stressor for everyone that recreates and is responsible for others safety on that section of river.”
Longtime river outfitter Bill Dvorak tells a story about a bunch of kids in tubes who got caught in the hydraulic below the dam before the boat chute went in. Some workers from the nearby gravel pit drove their bulldozer into the river, crawled out on the machine’s raised blade and rescued the tubers from the violent hole using a garden hose.
“I have used that story as a great example of ‘MacGyver’ rescue for years in the swiftwater rescue courses I teach,” Dvorak said.
The dam has been an obstacle for trout and aquatic insects that help make the 102-mile Upper Arkansas River a Gold Medal Fishery, which means the river supports a minimum of 12 large trout per acre. The environmental benefits of blowing up the dam makes the project “a win, win, win for the Arkansas River,” Waters said.
Salida locals have been visiting the overlook above the dam for the past few weeks, watching the progress and celebrating the end of the river blight.
“This is what’s so great about being a county commissioner,” said Felt, who was recently elected chair of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “You can take action and immediately change a dynamic in your community and this was one of the worst dynamics in our community. It was criminal to just leave that thing there.”