Our View: Auburn must be willing to dig for whitewater gold

Our View
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Auburn is sitting on a cold, exhilarating, foamy and thrilling gold mine, and it’s time to seek the treasure within. Last weekend’s inaugural American River Festival at China Bar confirmed there is significant interest in the whitewater river park at the bar. Hundreds of people showed up to participate and watch kayakers race and challenge the manmade rapids. Hundreds more could have been accommodated with additional parking and viewing areas. Trouble is, access to the China Bar is restricted much of the year, meaning thousands of rafters and kayakers who traverse the river annually must continue downstream to takeouts at Birdsall or Oregon Bar — neither of which are conducive to maximizing the manmade rapids, which peak during high water. We applaud the State Parks Department, Placer County Water Agency and federal Bureau of Reclamation for allowing river access for the festival. State Parks, like other state agencies, is feeling the fiscal pinch of California’s billion-dollar budget shortfall, and doesn’t have the funds to staff China Bar on a regular basis. PCWA’s $72 million investment in its pump station at the bar also demands respect and protection. But rather than viewing the festival’s success as a glass half-empty, Auburn should view it as a glass half-full … and wonder what it will take to make the glass flow over. Auburn city and Placer County leaders should reach out to their peers in Cool and El Dorado County and build a visionary, collaborative model that can be presented to regional, state and federal agencies that control access to China Bar. Such an approach by the city recently gave Auburn and a volunteer corps access to removing wildfire debris on federal land near Robie Point. Project Canyon Safe was considered a breakthrough in bureaucratic diplomacy. Why can’t something similar be crafted for river access? What’s indisputable is that Northern California’s thirst for whitewater fun could be an economic juggernaut, if two similar efforts are considered. In Reno, the construction of a $1.5-million whitewater park on the Truckee River in 2003 has generated millions in tourism dollars. The public-private partnership of agencies and casinos that built the park gave rise to the Reno River Festival, which celebrated its seventh edition this month with tens of thousands enjoying three days of races, food and music along the river’s banks. In Columbus, Ga., city leaders there have approved funding for a 2.5-mile river park. Known as the Chattahoochee Whitewater Project., the $23 million initiative is expected to draw 18,000 people annually and generate more than $2 million annually in tourism. OK, Auburn isn’t fortunate enough to have the American River flow through town, but it does run right through our back yard. And there are issues related to water flows on the Middle Fork. Morning releases often don’t reach China Bar until mid-afternoon. But thanks to PCWA, the manmade rapids built when restoring the river channel are considered top-notch by whitewater enthusiasts. With dozens of raft and kayak companies already serving the area, the economic impact could be immediate if access issues were resolved, environmentally sensitive parking built and local transit options created. City, community and business leaders banded together for three months to coordinate Auburn’s preparation for the Amgen Tour of California. Weekly meetings, countless e-mails, hundreds of volunteer hours and a choreographed public-safety presence resulted in 15 minutes of storied cycling action. Imagine what could happen if the same amount of energy were invested in the whitewater opportunities at China Bar. The thrill would last for years.