Swan Falls area may get recreation renovation

Idaho Power will give the area a $1.2 million overhaul.

rphillips@idahostatesman.comApril 23, 2014 

Swan Falls Reservoir and dam area has a lot going for it. You can fish in a beautiful canyon while staring at rocky bluffs and see mallards flushing from the cattails and hawks and falcons soaring on thermals.

It's a favorite place for spring visitors, and the area's mild weather also makes it a nice winter get away.

But Swan Falls has a glaring problem - its reputation as a trash magnet and party hangout.

That's likely to change.

Pending final approval in May by the Ada County commissioners, Idaho Power will launch a major overhaul of the recreation facilities above and below the dam.

The project is scheduled to start in July and be completed by December.

There will be major upgrades, but the overall plan is to keep most existing uses, provide better facilities, and more management and oversight of the area.

"I think we have a chance to start fresh," said Fred Noland, senior biologist for Idaho Power and parks operation and maintenance manager. "I don't see a shift in the types of use, but I am hopeful we'll see an improvement in behavior."

The upgrade is required under Idaho Power's dam relicensing. Overall it's a three-prong plan to enhance recreation, rehabilitate and enhance wildlife habitat, and protect cultural resources of the Swan Falls area.

The area gets use from a variety of people from anglers to equestrians and from climbers to paintball shooters.

It's also an area popular for dispersed camping, which basically means people can camp wherever they want.

Most uses will remain, but sorry paintballers, you can no longer play in the rocks on Idaho Power property.

But anglers, campers, motor boaters, floaters, picknickers, equestrians and others will see improvements despite some "access disruptions," Noland said, as well as additional truck traffic in the area.

Idaho Power is giving its contractor leeway on the sequence in which projects get done during the six-month construction period.

"We will try not to have the whole thing torn up at once," Noland said.

Idaho Power will give current construction information on its website and through news releases. People with questions can also email fnoland@idahopower.com.

Noland said he's seen activities in the area that would discourage him from taking his family there for a weekend of camping and fishing, but that will change.

"I'm going to be the first guy down there next spring," he said.

CAMPING

Probably the biggest change will be for campers, and it's a potential good news/bad news situation.

The good is there will be designated camping areas with picnic tables, fire rings, flattened pads for parking an RV or pitching a tent, and gravel roads to and from the campsites.

Camping will remain free of charge.

There will be about 20 designated camping spaces on Idaho Power's property, which is roughly from about a mile upstream from the dam to about 2 miles downstream. There's also camping areas on BLM land downstream from Idaho Power's property.

The potential bad news, for some at least, is that camping will not be allowed on Idaho Power property outside of designated camping areas.

Campsites will remain relatively primitive with no drinking water provided, nor electric hookups or other amenities, but there will be several vault toilets added.

Trash policy will remain pack-in, pack-out, but there will be dumpsters centrally located in the area.

Noland said the goal is to reduce the problems created by random campsites, such as numerous fire rings, littering, erosion and damaged habitat, but still allow people to camp, including riverside campsites.

BOATING

Boating facilities on the reservoir upstream of the dam and the river downstream will get major improvements.

The gravel ramp on the reservoir will be paved and enlarged, and a larger boat/fishing dock will extend farther out in the reservoir.

The parking area will be regraded and graveled, and a launch prep area and tie-down area will be added. There will also be a vault toilet with handicapped access.

Downstream from the dam, the existing gravel boat ramp will be replaced with a two-lane paved ramp, and the small island near the launch will be dredged out to allow for easier launching and boat retrieval.

This area will also get a vault toilet, handicapped access, and a dumpster.

PICNICKING

This may be the most visible change at the park near the dam. A picnic shelter will be added to the grassy area near the historic boarding house just upstream from the dam.

There will be a paved, handicapped accessible path along the shoreline, and interpretive signs added. A dock will be added to the shoreline off the park so boaters can use the picnic area and restrooms.

Crews will also add trees and additional landscaping to the area to provide shade and scenery.

ROADS/PARKING

What constitutes a road, trail or pullout gets a little confusing down there because people have been driving willy-nilly for decades and creating numerous unauthorized routes.

Many of those will be closed and rehabilitated, which means you may be parking and walking to your favorite spot by the river. But several roads will be improved to prevent erosion and also make them usable in all weather.

All vehicles will be restricted to designated roads, and parking facilities will be added to accommodate equestrians and other users.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

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