New bridge eases troubled waters

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The structure is aimed at reducing boater-landowner conflicts

BRUCE LIGHTENBURGER

Landowner Bruce Lightenburger helps out with a project to construct a boater-friendly fence across the Dolores River above McPhee Dam. Photo by Shannon Livick

Cheers echoed Friday, July 25, over the rushing sound of the Dolores River as a small group of volunteers stretched the river’s first boater-safety fence across its waters. For nearly a year, the Dolores River Boating Advocates have been thinking about a fence that would solve growing boater/ landowner tensions after a raft ride last year nearly turned deadly.

Rains in the late summer had made the Dolores River, usually clear and calm and easy to cross, into a raftable, rushing and cloudy river. Because of this, many river enthusiasts hit the waters for a late summer run, not knowing that the fluctuating rush was hiding something dangerous: fences.

When the Dolores Riiver gets low, people and animals can easily cross it. Because of this, ranchers have no choice but to install fences to keep their livestock where they belong. But when a high-altitude rain happens, the river can surge at unexpected times, covering up the fences and luring kayakers, rafters and tubers.

At least one river enthusiast got caught in a fence last year and another had a close call with his 5-year-old because of a hidden fence.

The incident sent a ripple of fear through the local boating community and the Dolores River Boating Advocates responded.

“We are a boater advocacy group and we wanted to do the right thing for everyone,” said Lee-Ann Hill, program coordinator for the advocates.

Hill explained the PVC fence they constructed Friday was designed to allow boaters through, like a beaded curtain in a door, but it keeps cattle on the right side.

“It dissuades the cows more visually than physically, but it should work,” Hill said.

The boater-advocacy group had to work from scratch and design the fence themselves.

“We’ve heard of these fences, but we couldn’t find a template or photo of one, so we are designing this as we go,” she said.

The fence involves a cable suspended between two poles on either side of the river, in this case, the down-river edge of a cattle field belonging to Bruce Lightenburger above Dolores. Hanging from the cable are small-diameter PVC pipes spaced about one foot apart. The poles nearly reach the bottom of the river during low-flow times and should float on top of the water during high waters. The cable is high enough that it will never pose a danger to rafters and those that get up to the fence should simply be able to float right through the poles. The fence is about 125 feet long.

The Dolores River Boating Advocates formed about two years ago and this is their first major project. After the boater got tangled up in a fence last summer, they heard from numerous concerned boaters.

The cost of the fence is expected to be about $1,200. Mild to Wild of Durango, the Colorado River Outfitters Association, Heather Narwid of the Sideshow Emporium in Dolores and the Durango Home Depot all donated money, time or materials to the project, in addition to the volunteers with the group.

Lightenburger also donated time, materials and equipment to help with the project.

“Bruce has been very amenable and enthusiastic about this project,” Hill said.

Boater Andy Hutchinson was among the eight volunteers Friday that erected the fence. He hopes it will make things better for everyone.

“It’s a good way to get boaters and landowners together. It beats trying to shake hands with a fist,” he said.

Rafters and private-property owners across the state of Colorado have been embroiled in a sort of legal horn-lock over fences and boaters’ right to float across private property if a landowner owns both sides of the river.

The argument comes down to whether or not the Dolores River is “navigable.” Some attorneys say this means that at the time Colorado gained statehood, 1876, the river had to have been used for commerce, and if boats weren’t going up and down the river for commerce at that time, the river is non-navigable, making trespassers of those who float down the river without permission.

Others argue that a boater has every right to float down a river and that putting a fence across it is akin to blocking a public road.

“If you can get a boat down a river, it is navigable,” Hutchinson said.

Despite the legal battles at the state level, this boater-friendly fence appears to be a nice compromise.

Installing the fence was the first phase of the project. The second phase will continue later this summer after the group observes how the first fence works. If it works well, the group will install another fence on the up-river edge of Lightenburger’s cattle pastures.

Hill said the advocacy group also plans to erect signs above the fences warning boaters that the new fences are ahead.

“After we installed the fence, we were hanging out by the river and some tubers came down. They seemed scared of the fence,” Hill said.

The tubers started to get out of their tubes.

“We had to tell them what to do and that they could float right through the fence. So we need to get the word out about this fence and install some signs,” she said.

Volunteer Scott Spear has encountered fences such as the one he helped construct on other rivers. “I’ve boated through one and it seems to work,” he said.

There are a couple such barriers on the Uncompahgre and some on the lower San Miguel.

“You just part through it like you would tall grass,” Spear said.

Volunteers were excited to take part in the project.

“It’s a great grassroots collaboration between parties. It’s exciting and Bruce has been more than amicable,” said volunteer Jane Dally of Durango.

Volunteer Charlotte Overby, also of Durango, was thrilled to see the project take shape. “I think it’s an incredible example of a group of boaters coming together with landowners,” she said. “I just love rivers.”

For more information see http://doloresriverboating. org/

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From August 2014.