The proposed whitewater novelty feature on the Snake River near the South Park Bridge shouldn’t be allowed to take up any more of our county’s time, money or commitment.
The original proposal asked for county approval for the nonprofit applicant to proceed with design and construction. It now wants the county to take over design and construction in addition to maintenance responsibilities.
Given pressing community-wide priorities such as transportation and housing, it doesn’t make sense that another recreational feature — one more typically associated with urban settings — warrants any further consideration given both the short- and long-term commitment of human and financial resources required. There are highly significant additional reasons to reject it.
The proposed whitewater novelty park represents unacceptable jeopardy to fish populations in the immediate vicinity.
Since the 2012 feasibility study’s rosy prediction that the feature will provide “a long-term benefit through habitat creation and restoration” (p. 11), and prior to a stated goal reported at the June 19 commissioners meeting to “improve and enhance fish movement up the Snake River, primarily bluehead sucker,” there have been several studies by academic and professional fisheries biologists and engineers indicating precisely the opposite. In a June 4, 2015, letter to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Parks and Wildlife noted that whitewater parks “have an impact on fisheries and aquatic habitat, upstream fish passage, natural river functions, sediment transport, bank erosion and recreational angling opportunities.”
The whitewater novelty feature could do extensive harm to area cutthroat trout, an important species both economically and ecologically. Even more troubling, it has the potential to harm bluehead sucker populations using the specific area — a species which is a Tier 1 Species of Greatest Conservation Need, a determination made by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Despite plans for a fish passage channel adjacent to the whitewater novelty feature, there is no guarantee that the side channel will provide the necessary flow throughout the year to insure against losses of fish populations avoiding the feature area because of now well-documented detrimental velocity, drop and pool turbulence in areas where none previously existed. It is environmentally unconscionable to take this fisheries risk for any reason, much less to provide a theme-park atmosphere in a valley that should continue to be emphasized as a place that represents the very best in natural attractions.
In addition to environmental risks, the county will saddle itself with commitments of financial and human resources to a project requiring a considerable amount of both, perhaps out of proportion to other parks and recreation facilities. Commissioners should account for not only new requirements of county roads and levee equipment and personnel, along with Parks and Rec staff, but the maintenance and repair costs of the feature itself. It is essential to find out what the annual or biannual expenses are from other similar parks as well as potential modification, repair and restoration expenses associated with both temporary and permanent failures.
A pledge by the advocacy organization to kick in on maintenance is hardly reassuring. Anyone can promise anything and later back out based on any number of reasons that donations and grant funding fall short or run out altogether. Anyone paying taxes in this county should be extremely leery of the seductive promise of permanent though only partial funding from the organization pushing the novelty park, especially as it has already backed away from the original commitment to fully fund construction. Reasons are unimportant. It is a shift of financial and other liabilities from the organization pushing the park to Teton County.
Furthermore, accepting partial startup project money from an anonymous donor doesn’t pass the ethics sniff test. Teton County citizens have a right to know with whom our officials are transacting business. Commissioners have a right, and an obligation to us, to know as well.
Considered through the lens of our comprehensive plan’s three interlinked community values of ecosystem stewardship, growth management and quality of life, the proposal is a net negative. It doesn’t do much of anything to add to quality of life in an area already rich with parks, picnic areas and recreational opportunities in the town and county and on federal lands, including natural rapids not much farther from Jackson than the proposed artificial feature.
It does nothing whatsoever to aid in growth management. If anything, it is an adverse influence since, according to the whitewater novelty park’s advocates, it will draw additional recreationalists to a valley already struggling with the effects of its popularity for various other reasons. And, of course, in terms of this community’s core value of ecosystem stewardship, it’s a bomb.
Our commissioners need to say no sooner rather than later to an environmentally and fiscally indefensible proposal that lacks transparency and is out of line with our community sanctioned comprehensive plan’s common values.