History of the San Juan River Restoration Project in Pagosa Springs Colorado
A lot of community work was accomplished during the 1980s and early 1990s. Of all the improvements, The San Juan River Restoration Project was the grandest. It revolutionized recreation in and around the river and was a significant factor inspiring downtown business people to improve their properties. We thought we were getting a better river; we got a vastly improved Pagosa Springs! It has continued over the past few years to increase the use of San Juan River for kayaking, tubing and enhanced fishing.
People always fished, kids tubed, and rafts sped along the river, but access to the water and avenues out were few and far between in the town limits. In most places getting to the water could result in scratches and bruises. The only easy access was a short distance in Town Park. After restoration and the building of the River Walk it became easy and safe to approach the river all along its banks. People began going to the river just to be near it. They read, visit, write, paint, draw, play fetch with dogs, contemplate and generally love the experience.
The idea for revamping the river began in an informal meeting between Fred Schmidt and Marion Francis, members of the Archuleta (County) Economic Development Association (AEDA). They interviewed river consultants and hired Dave Rosgen whose company, Wildland Hydrology Consultants, had accomplished a similar project on the East Fork of the San Juan several years earlier.
Rosgen completed his design and the AEDA joined with the Town of Pagosa Springs to apply for a grant from the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Fishing is Fun Program. It took a good two years to get state and federal permits for the project. The grant was applied for in 1992 and work began in the fall of 1994. The grant was for $157,400.
A major road straightening project was underway on the east side of Wolf Creek Pass in the early 1990s involving blowing out and removing vast quantities of large boulders, some the size of small cars. The astute people of the river project paid to have truck loads of these boulders brought down for use in the project. The AEDA raised $30,000 with its “adopt a rock” program whereby citizens purchased a rock for $50.00. A list of these citizens is engraved on a plaque near the Chamber of Commerce. Long furrows of these stones became a scenic fixture in town for a year or so before the project began. Some of them still rest just west of The Springs Resort on the raised southern bank of the river.
The work was done in late fall when water flow is at a minimum. Citizens who watched were amazed as a large machine with a very talented operator literally juggled the boulders in the giant mechanical pinchers and then placed them in exact positions dictated by Rosgen. (Continued…)
Shapes with names like “W wears” and ‘Winding Thelwiggs” were installed, returning more natural shapes and flow to the river. Also, the project had to remove as much rock from the river as it put in with the boulders so, deep holes were dug to bedrock. These holes allow fish to winter over in Pagosa instead of swimming south as the water level recedes in fall.
A few years ago, during the driest year of the long drought of the 1990’s these holes paid a big dividend. The river flow became a trickle and it appeared for a few days, before it finally rained, that the Great Pagosa Hot Spring would become the “headwaters” of the San Juan River. In the 1930’s a similar drought quickly lowered the river’s water level and thousands of fish were trapped with no deep holes to go to. The stink when they died, all at once, was described as “God awful terrible” and the men of town had to load wagons and haul them away.
The river project included a five acre park including two fishing ponds behind the River Center in east Pagosa Springs. One pond has a handicapped access deck. Also behind the River Center is a length of rapids Rosgen specifically made for the sport of kayaking.
After several years and continuing still, the banks of the river are returning to a more natural appearance as sediment fills open cavities around the boulders and wild river plants grow and expand.
To say the project was a big change is an understatement. There were places along the river that were simply ugly. In particular, the area where The Springs Resort is now located was just a wide shallow place in the river that caught much of the trash from up river including ice chest, camping gear, animal bones, steel drums, construction materials, a blackish gunk and driftwood. Private entrepreneurs, Matt Mees and Bill Dawson bought the spring property and in conjunction with the river project turned this area into an outstandingly beautiful and positive feature for downtown Pagosa Springs.
This restoration process is slated to continue on down the river starting behind the courthouse and continuing south in the near future. When this work begins, pay attention, it is not often we get to see ecology in action and a marvelous river returning to a natural state.
Oh, and you might try fishing the San Juan River in town. It has been noticed that consummate tourist fly fishermen go miles out rivers with their waders, cute little wicker baskets and thousands of dollars in equipment only later to come to town and find children standing by the river with a string of trout the fisherman would die for!