A handful of engineers spill out of pickup trucks in the Jonah Bank parking lot. They’re wearing hard hats, fluorescent vests, tall rubber boots. It’s about 2:30 p.m., and the crew that just arrived ambles over the uneven bank of the North Platte, down to the water’s edge and toward the heavy machinery sitting in the middle of the river.
They’re working on the latest stretch of a multimillion-dollar, yearslong effort to restore portions of the North Platte River that flow through Casper. The project will include channel adjustments, bank stabilization, the removal of artificial debris like concrete and the introduction of more native vegetation.
The city has already restored three key stretches of the river. The city began construction efforts in 2015 with a stretch by Morad Park. The next two phases were contiguous to the first stretch and restored the river bank near Wyoming Boulevard and the city’s water treatment plant. Those phases cost about $3 million. This latest phase, about half a mile between the Poplar Street bridge and the First Street bridge, has an estimated cost of about $2.5 million, but that’s a conservative figure.
Crews began working on this stretch in late September, when the water level was finally low enough for heavy machinery. They’ll work as long as they can, likely through the first or second week of December, project design engineer TC Dinkins said. Initially, they’d intended to have most of the project finished by that time, but with the record cold October temperatures, Dinkins said they will have to come back next September to finish the job.
This also means the project will cost more than the city had planned.
“Only part of this project is funded, and we are still looking for additional funding,” said Jolene Martinez, assistant to the city manager and the city’s point person for the project.
Because of the project’s mounting costs, only the bare minimum elements of the city’s plan for this portion have been funded. Martinez said they hope to add a boat ramp, among some other features, but the money isn’t there yet.
The city had applied for a $500,000 grant through the Wyoming Business Council to make ends meet, but the council denied that application in September, citing a lack of clarity over how much of the project had already been funded and the volume of funding Casper has already received from the council for other projects. Martinez said she plans to bring the funding issue before Casper City Council at an upcoming work session.
Part of the money problem comes from the complicated nature of a restoration project like this, Martinez said. The city has been preparing for this stretch alone since 2013. Dinkins said they’ve gone through 10-15 design iterations for this half-mile portion over the last five years because of the various environmental and regulatory considerations required for such a project.
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Moreover, this portion of the river is more polluted than any of the stretches the city has worked on to date. The North Platte River saw decades of pollution, inside and outside Casper city limits, before state or local efforts to clean it moved forward. Industrial waste poured into the river by the gallon during the reign of the Amoco Oil Refinery. Later, pollution from the city’s landfill seeped through the soil too. This stretch got the brunt of the pollution, Martinez said.
Because of the high level of pollution, the city has to take some added environmental steps to ensure the restoration doesn’t further pollute the river or release toxins downstream. So far between 500 and 600 cubic yards of contaminated soil and other debris have been removed from just this stretch of the river, Dinkins said.
And the restoration has had a huge impact on water quality and the river’s natural habitat too. Martinez said the work that’s already been done on the river is preventing more than 800 tons of erosion every year. That’s significant because erosion is among the largest river polluters.
But water quality isn’t the only benefit city officials hope this project has on the community. The city estimates restoring the First Street portion alone will boost surrounding property values by 5 percent by 2027 and boost recreation by 50 percent by 2024.
They also hope restoring the river will do for Casper what restoring the South Platte has done for Denver. Denver officials have claimed their riverfront restoration could net them up to 22,000 new jobs and an additional $4.3 million every year.
But even with the millions spent to restore the river, there’s still much more to do, Martinez said, and these massive improvements are expensive. The city has spent nearly $6 million on the first four portions of the river project, and Martinez said they will need at least another $17 to $20 million to finish the next three phases.
So far, funds have come from 1-cent money and local and state grants. The Wyoming Wildlife Natural Resources Trust provided $1.7 million for this latest stretch. This portion was initially only budgeted for about $1 million, but Martinez said because of the heavy pollution, the city had to spend more to meet environmental standards.
She said right now they’re pursuing all avenues to find the money to finish the project, but so far they’re coming up empty-handed.
Still, Martinez said she’s committed to seeing the restoration through.
“It not only benefits Casper, it benefits the state of Wyoming,” she said. “The benefits of this will be seen 20 years to come.”
Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites