Wednesday, September 11, 2013

City’s river park plan goes too far


    You may have noticed Ketchum touting a River Park at Sun Peak. The more accurate name is the “Sediment Trap at Hulen Meadows.” Here’s some history. In 1990, the Department of Transportation dug a big hole at the mouth of Hulen Meadows to provide gravel for road reconstruction—with the approval of the BLM as landowner. In a win-win, the Big Wood was then channeled into the hole to create a gravel catchment in high water for downstream homeowners.  In a win-win-win, the trap became, de facto, the Hulen Meadows Pond, where people fish, kayak, walk dogs, and generally hang out. It’s a restful place with wildlife, safe water for play, a terrific fishery, and open acreage for meandering.
    From the beginning, the trap was supposed to be maintained for continued flood mitigation; it never happened. For 16 years, the trap filled with sediment. In the flood of 2006, its river inflow was blocked by gravel. Fortunately, a few people quietly cleared and maintained an inflow stream, keeping the recreation area and some flood relief alive.

The trap was supposed
to be maintained
for continued flood mitigation;
it never happened.

    In 2008, the Wood River Land Trust proposed a “Hulen Meadows Site Restoration” project jointly with Ketchum. The city proposed to the BLM to transfer the land’s ownership to the city. Ketchum and the trust would then “improve the health of the (river’s) floodplain and associated fish and wildlife habitat… including restoration of the Hulen Meadows pond area.” The Land Trust estimated the cost at $1 million, plus a $500,000 endowment for ongoing excavation. It was a wonderful idea reflecting the trust’s mission “to protect and restore land, water and wildlife habitat.” The pond would again be clear and deep. Wildlife and fish habitat would be improved. Drop structures would be rebuilt, reinvigorating river health and, once again, enabling kayaking.
    Then, in 2012, Ketchum envisioned a “river park.”  The plan fortunately includes pond restoration and rebuilt drop structures—essential for continuing recreation. But, the city went giant steps further to propose an extensively developed, urban-type experience that, it claims (without evidence), will be an economic boon for the city. The open land next to the pond, now used by elk, rabbit, mink, moose and more, would be covered by a large picnic shelter, permanent toilets, a 35-car parking lot (plus the lot that’s there), and a “naturally appearing” manmade kids’ splash park with a fake river in it.  Next to the bike path would be a second sheltered picnic area, more toilets, parking for 100 cars, and a grassy lawn—all built one-half mile north of Sun Peak with its similar amenities.
    The one truly useful addition would be a pedestrian bridge over the river (downstream from the current bridge) that would enable easy pond access for handicapped, parents with children, bikers, dog walkers, fishermen and others. This bridge would alleviate safety issues currently present in the bridge’s tangled foot, bike and car traffic.
    The whitewater park, touted as being designed by the consultant that designed London’s Olympic run, would essentially be the old drop structures rebuilt with better design and longer-lasting material.  Kayaking would be restored—which is great—but without special features.
    In sum: Ketchum and its voters can choose between a roughly $1 million project to restore the pond, kayaking, flood relief and healthy river function, or $2.6 million for an urban experience with three parking lots, a fake river near a real one, and two sets of toilets and picnic shelters—a budget that underestimates proper excavation costs by half ($100,000 vs. $200,000) and which fails to include costs for ongoing excavation and river park administration.  

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