Rough Waters
>> Poudre River Whitewater Park in Fort Collins, Colorado


It's been smooth sailing for Fort Collins' rough waters.

The Colorado town, home to Colorado State University and the Poudre River, just opened an $11 million whitewater park 14 months after groundbreaking. S2O Design provided design, planning, permitting and construction services to the project, which aims to bring people from near and far to use an overlooked stretch of river.

Tubing and kayaking will be the headline activities of an area meant to bring folks together to do whatever they please outdoors. The Poudre Trail is adjacent, there's a playground, a terrace with seating overlooking the water, a pedestrian bridge and a portion of one of the banks with full accessibility for people with disabilities.

"First and foremost, we want it to be a place for the residents of Fort Collins," said Kurt Friesen, the town's director of park planning and development. "We were purposeful in this. It's designed for folks interested in more than just whitewater. It's for families, it's for trail users, it's a place to hang out by the river. We think first and foremost it'll be a valued and treasured place for residents of Fort Collins."

Friesen said a whitewater park had been a topic in Fort Collins since the 1980s, but the technical challenges of the work needed on the river and its banks had been as daunting as pleasing everyone with an opinion on what the park should include.

S2O Design was founded by engineer and former Olympic and pro kayaker Scott Shipley, who has overseen the creation of high-profile sites like the United States National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C., and several in-stream whitewater parks similar to the one Fort Collins wanted.

Shipley's firm can create whitewater parks with only city water and pumps to churn it, as it did in Charlotte, or it can work with nature, as with the Poudre River.

"The most rewarding thing we make is when we go into a city with a river that's been underused," said Shipley. "You can cross bridges and not realize there's a river down there. We can go in and change that, and not only create a place where there's recreation, but access points and trails and park space, and make something that's truly an amazing community amenity but also a destination for the whole region."

Simply put, when the river is high, like the spring, when the mountain snow is melting, the park should attract serious kayakers from near and far. When the water level is lower, the attendance and use will be more local and family-oriented.

"When we presented, we told (the city), 'This is not going to be a Hawaii 5-0 whitewater park; it's going to be community-sized, and here are the days it's going to be good and the days it's going to be less good'" said Shipley.


The engineering issues involved lowering the river, providing fish passages and hauling away old power plant infrastructure. The community buy-in involved funding, satisfying environmental and regulatory groups, and providing the fun the residents said they wanted at the six public meetings held during the process.

"Environmental process runs on a separate track from the recreational; you try not to mix the two worlds," said Shipley. "Public process is collaborative, but the regulatory process is authoritarian. Fish passage was a given, and we worked it out with the fish passage folks. The shape and character of the waves was the public discussion, and the access and the park."

Friesen said the project finally launched once the city council approved a masterplan in 2014 that included the park as a portion of a downtown spruce-up. Properties bought to do what had to be done to the river accounted for about a third of the total cost, which was funded mainly by an improvement tax, as well as city departments and private donors.

"The masterplan was a way to balance a lot of different interests," said Friesen. "There's a desire for recreation, but we also have interest in keeping the river natural in places, a more natural environment, preserving habitat. Over time there's been efforts to do each of those things independently and they haven't gotten very far.

"The plan was the first time where we started to think about those things overlapped and it enabled us to move forward because we were able to leverage different funding sources and different interests and have the support we needed to make it possible."

The 11-acre park will be like any municipal park, said Friesen: no admission fees and no staffing other than rangers checking in. There are no firm goals for attendance or usage, only a wish that the residents of Fort Collins enjoy it so much that other projects in the masterplan are accomplished as successfully.

"We hope there will be momentum," said Friesen. "Our goal is to not stop here." RM

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