A months-long closing of a prominent section of Aspen trail through Rio Grande Park is an inconvenience that city parks planners hope is overshadowed once the curtain is lifted on a revamped public space at the end of the summer.
The city is in the midst of a $1.4 million project adding public restrooms, a pump house, stormwater treatment infrastructure, new trails, wetlands and gardens to the northwest corner of the park. The work will be similar in character to the John Denver Sanctuary expansion completed last summer.
Rio Grande Park is the city’s most high-profile and expensive parks project this summer, although other areas will see work done as well. Those include the Hunter Creek Trail extension, Sky Mountain Park and the Maroon Creek gorge. The Aspen Golf Club also is getting new a driving range and an expanded chipping and putting area.
Excavators began digging the foundations of the bathrooms and pump house in Rio Grande Park last week. This requires the closure of a section of the Rio Grande Trail from the ball field to the footbridge crossing the Roaring Fork River, since the existing path — which will be realigned — runs right through the restroom buildings’ footprint. Crews also are adding a new stream crossing in the area.
Composting toilets are one element the park will have in common with the Bronx Zoo. The technology, which is basically a self-contained sewage treatment plant, according to Aspen’s parks and recreation manager Jeff Woods, has been gaining favor recently for both environmental and practical reasons (composting toilets have been in use at the New York City attraction since 2007).
For one, there is no need to go through the expensive and inconvenient process of running sewage lines — which would have to pump effluent back uphill — into the park.
But the composting toilet system also makes an environmental statement, Woods said, since it cuts down on water use, power consumption and reliance on outside infrastructure.
“We want people to realize we are all part of a system,” Woods said.
Instead of using gallons of water with each flush, the toilets will deploy foam when the user is finished. The effluent will then go into a series of vaults where a system of sawdust-like material and fans will convert human waste into a usable fertilizer. The city estimates that the tanks will need to be emptied a few times a year.
The vaults themselves also will be a “sealed vessel” sitting outside of the nearby river’s flood plain, Woods said, meaning there isn’t a concern about the waste getting into the Roaring Fork.
The bathroom buildings themselves are being built using rocks excavated from the site, which will be packaged into wire frames to make building blocks. Altogether, the facility will cost around $564,000, including $471,000 for the construction and $93,000 for the composting toilet system.
Just down the Rio Grande Trail from the new restrooms, the city is installing a $108,000 pump house and $71,600 pump and irrigation system that will allow the ball field grass to be irrigated using raw water from a series of creeks and ponds near the Theatre Aspen tent. Pumping water a short distance uphill means the city will stop using millions of gallons of treated water that is currently used each summer to keep the grass green.
“You don’t need fluoride to grow the grass strong,” Woods said.
Perhaps the biggest environmental difference this summer’s Rio Grande Park work will make is in regards to stormwater. The city has been undergoing a multimillion-dollar effort over the last decade to build a series of vaults and wetlands that cleanse and filter water that comes off of streets and buildings during a storm and the spring runoff season. The first major project toward this effort was the Jennie Adair Wetlands, completed in 2007, where ditches and pipes capture water from the West End and send it into a “mechanical separator” vault that filters out trash and other debris. The water then runs through a series of ponds and wetlands planted with native vegetation and grasses before entering the Roaring Fork River much cleaner than if it was left untreated.
Last year’s John Denver Sanctuary extension project included similar components, treating water that runs from the eastern sections of town. But a large portion of the runoff from the central part of the commercial core currently enters the river carrying all the dirt and chemicals it picked up as it traveled across Aspen’s impermeable surfaces. For an unappetizing sight, check out the outflow pipe into the river near the Mill Street car bridge when it’s raining hard.
Work currently underway will see a vault installed under North Mill Street that will feed into a water course running down the hill along the park’s western edge. Water will run through another series of streams and ponds near the Theatre Aspen tent before reaching the river.
“We’re going from zero treatment to a full system,” said city parks and open space director Stephen Ellsperman, who believes the Rio Grande work may be the city’s most environmentally friendly project ever.
The beautiful part, parks officials said, is that the wetlands, ponds and streams that treat the water also make for a public space that people can enjoy.
“The idea here is to celebrate water,” Woods said.
On Aug. 4, the public will be called on to help the city plant native plants and grasses that make the wetlands work. Similar work days, coordinated through Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, took place at the Jennie Adair and John Denver wetlands.
Funding partners for the Rio Grande Park work include Theatre Aspen, which gave $100,000 toward the project; Pitkin County’s Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, which gave $43,000; and the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, which contributed $43,000.
While the work will necessitate trail closures, parks planning and construction operations manager Scott Chism said great care is being taken to get as much done as quickly as possible, so it impacts the least amount of people.
The next few weeks may be the most difficult stretch, when the Rio Grande Trail section is closed and there will be no way to get through the park on a trail or pavement. But soon, the soft-surface path that runs along the river through the John Denver Sanctuary will reopen, after a lengthy closure.
That trail was closed through last year’s expansion of the sanctuary, and a new footbridge and stream has been built at the path’s east end, before it reconnects with the Rio Grande Trail. Once that section reopens, Rio Grande users can take it to detour around the closure. Hopefully by mid-summer, the Rio Grande section will reopen, leaving just the path from the theater tent to Mill Street under construction, Chism said.
While Rio Grande Park is the biggest and most visible project underway this summer, a city crew working on behalf of Pitkin County is currently finishing the Hunter Creek Trail extension.
The one-third of a mile stretch connects what is now the end of the popular trail with the Rio Grande Trail, just downvalley of the post office spur. The $250,000 project was paid for mostly by private homeowners in exchange for a vested rights extension. The connection to Rio Grande should make the Hunter Creek Trail easier to find, as tourists and others often have a difficult time locating the current trailhead, which is tucked between two apartment complexes off of Lone Pine Road.
At Sky Mountain Park — formerly known as the Droste property, which public agencies acquired and saved from residential development — the city, county and town of Snowmass Village are continuing to add to the trail network. Mountain bikers will see work that will take place this summer, which will add two new single-track access points. One will come from the Owl Creek side and bypass “Radar Road,” which is a fairly brutal climb. A second trail will take off from the Brush Creek Road-Highway 82 corner of the park. Woods said the trails will be graded with uphill riding in mind.
Parks crews also recently replaced the Bob Helm Bridge, located in the Maroon Creek gorge beneath the golf course. The new bridge is a crucial link in a little known trail network that follows Maroon Creek far from any road.
Other projects are on the drawing boards, but still need more input from the public and from City Council.
A $1 million project to replace the turf and irrigation system and regrade Wagner Park in downtown Aspen has been budgeted, but the parks department is waiting until a new City Council is seated in June to proceed, Woods said. The parks department also is planning an extensive public outreach effort on the work, according to Ellsperman. While the project is not intended to change the current look and feel of Wagner, it does aim to make the field more usable. A better irrigation and drainage system should make the turf more durable, and less susceptible to long springtime closures, according to planners. It also would cut down on the amount of water used to irrigate the field.
The city also is considering whether to expand the Rio Grande skate park into the area where a basketball court currently sits. Public outreach on the concept will be sought and gathered this summer, Ellsperman said.