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A Dam Fine Time

The Colorado Dam Safe Passage Project

In 1915, the Colorado Street Dam was constructed on the Deschutes River to create a mill pond for the Brooks-Scanlon and Shevlin-Hixon lumber mills. The dam and pond, built just north of what is now Bend’s Old Mill District, allowed for the storage of local ponderosa pine, felled for the mills. Thus followed a century of strictly utilitarian river usage; the Deschutes was for drinking water, irrigation and forestry—not play.

But the 2012 passing of Bond Measure 9-86 has allowed for recreation to come to the forefront of the Deschutes River in the form of the Colorado Dam Safe Passage Project. This year, the dam will be replaced with the installation of three new, distinct channels, separated by landscaped rock walls. Bend Paddle Trail Alliance (BPTA) has been integral to the process, and helped Bend Park and Recreation design the new water park with the goal of “something for everyone.”

The environmentally sensitive easternmost “habitat channel” will run along the new Miller’s Landing Park, and is reserved for native fish and plant life that reside in the river. The westernmost “safe passage channel” will provide a calm route for river-floaters on the McKay Park side of the river. The midstream “whitewater channel”, perhaps the most exciting channel, will fill the role of surf park.

The surf park will consist of four standing waves created by underwater obstructions, which create a roiling ripple for people to play and surf on, and will be named for prominent local river advocates and adventurers. The waves drop in degree of difficulty and increase in user-friendliness as individuals move downstream. Sitting under the new pedestrian bridge, “Eddy’s Wave” will cater to advanced wave riders. Next, downstream, the yet-to-be-named wave is geared towards stand-up paddlers. Moving further downstream, “Kricket’s Wave” is still surfable, but is designed for use with lower water levels. Lastly, “Jason’s Wave” is open to all ages and experience levels. The roughly two-year project is slated to be finished by the fall of 2016, with in-river construction completed by the fall of 2015.

Serving a wide range of people through play, safety, and environmental sustainability, the project takes advantage of “in-stream use,” which means no additional water is needed to create the water features. Channels and waves are created through a manipulation of the river instead of, say, releasing more water from a dam. Therefore, the new water playground will cause no change in the water levels upstream in the Old Mill District or downstream toward Mirror Pond. Year-round usage is made possible due to the project’s one-of-a-kind design, based around pneumatically controlled submerged air bladders, which adjust to the water flow in order to maintain the four standing waves.

A River Changing

As the turn of the millennium came, Bend’s hard work to solidify itself as a premier recreation destination paid off with frequent inclusions on “best places to live” lists followed by more visitors and more residents. With newfound rec status came increased river usage. Floating the Deschutes River from the Old Mill District to downtown Bend became very popular after the opening of Farewell Bend Park near the Bill Healy Bridge in 2005, and the dam became, at best, a nuisance of a portage and at worst, a dangerous death trap.

Change was necessary, and some residents saw great opportunity to replace the dam in a truly innovative way, one that would contribute to Bend’s outdoor Mecca status. But public support had to be garnered and money had to be raised.

Beginning in late 2004, ten years of meetings between interested boaters and the Bend Park and Recreation sparked the idea for a water park in the minds of both government officials and locals alike. The desire for a paddle trail, combined with several feasibility studies, brought the destruction of the Colorado Dam to the forefront of every plan. Several river incidents, including two deaths, highlighted the dangers of the dam, while the BPTA began raising money to contribute to the project.

While the community’s support of a $29 million bond would contribute over $8 million toward the project, the project would never have been realized without diligence, an additional $1.3 million and design input from the BPTA. To help create the project plan, BPTA representatives visited surf parks in Nevada, California, Colorado and Idaho. They even took inspiration from a facility in Munich, Germany. The BPTA used the other parks as a study in economic benefits and examples in design, but project insiders are quick to point out the uniqueness of Bend’s park, due to the three-channel, bladder-infused design.

By having three channels, instead of the typical single channel, Bend’s surf park will likely be an additional highlight for Central Oregon tourism. “Bend has built its reputation on recreation opportunities,” says BPTA’s Karl Koenig. “This will be another arrow in our quiver. Smith Rock for climbing, Mt. Bachelor for skiing and, soon, the waterpark.”

Soon, Bend residents and visitors will have another place to play and the Bend Park and Recreation District will have another jewel in their crown of parks.

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