Brett Nachtigall/Fall River County Herald-Star
Looking north from the North River Street bridge, Fall River is barely visible amongst the overgrowth of cattails in front of the Kidney Springs gazebo.
By Brett Nachtigall
HOT SPRINGS – With plans now moving forward with the State DOT to include a suspension sidewalk on North River Street as part of the Highway 385 reconstruction through Hot Springs, another vital component of the overall plan is to remove the cattails from the river itself.
According to Hot Springs City Engineer Tracy Bastian, money has been getting set aside for a pilot program to begin working on that issue, but was put on-hold this summer due to the COVID-19 crisis. He however added that it could commence later this fall.
City Administrator John Gregory confirmed this notion on Monday, Aug. 3, and said the city is currently awaiting bids from area contractors to begin the pilot program near the storm drainage below the bandshell at Kidney Springs. He said $65,000 has been discussed in budget hearings to allocate for the project thus far.
The removal of the cattails from Fall River is being looked at by city officials as an aesthetic improvement that will go hand-in-hand with the plans for the suspension sidewalk – which is both a safety and an aesthetics enhancement to downtown Hot Springs. The need for the removal of the cattails and other improvements to the river bed were topics brought up numerous times during past City Council meetings, by residents who were both ‘for’ and ‘against’ the suspended sidewalk agreement with the state. The consensus has been that it would be pointless to create an attraction in that part of town, unless the river was cleaned up to be attractive as well.
The chore to do so will be a big one, Bastian said, as it will entail mechanically removing the cattails down to the roots. The previous practice of burning the cattails each spring actually did more harm than good, in regards to strengthening their chokehold on the river, Bastian noted.
The mechanical removal of the cattails is however getting a boost from the Jennings Avenue Bridge project, which is currently being performed by Dietzler Construction of Berthoud, Colo., under the supervision of Brosz Engineering, the State DOT and the City of Hot Springs. The project began in mid-July and is expected to continue until mid to late November.
As part of the removal of the old bridge, Dietzler crews created an access route for heavy equipment to enter the river bottom near the south end of Centennial Park. In addition to removing the former bridge supports, crews also dug up and removed a large amount of cattails to also make it easier to get around and do their jobs, while also diverting the flow of the river.
How the Dietzler crews removed the cattails is a similar process to how the City of Hot Springs will likely begin their work as well, but with quite a few added steps to follow, according to both Bastian and City Administrator John Gregory.
Gregory said Dietzler’s recent creation of an access to the river bottom is one of four access paths the city is hoping to have built, eventually. The others include the aforementioned one by Kidney Springs (which will be part of the initial pilot program), another near the courthouse where the city is currently working with the VA to have a large rock removed, and the fourth would be along Garden Street.
The project to remove the cattails and improve public access to the warm water of Fall River will be done by a combination of private contractors and city staff. Gregory said the work will be performed simultaneously with the highway reconstruction project over the next two-plus years. Discussions are ongoing within the Public Works Committee, being led by councilman Dave Burris.
Bastian said the situation Hot Springs finds itself in with its cattail problem probably dates back to as far as the 1920s. He said the first concrete wall was erected in 1921 as a flood control measure. It was then replaced a year later, oddly enough, because of a big flood. Documented repairs were made to the wall in 1937 and again in 1947.
Some time leading up to or during that 26 year timeframe, Bastian said he thinks the entire river bottom was graded flat – especially in the area from Kidney Springs to the Braun Hotel where there is a steep flood wall on both sides.
Due to the river not having enough water flow to be that wide, it naturally had to reestablish its route. Over time, vegetation seeds like cattails, along with sediment, accumulated in stagnant pools of water. That ongoing build up of vegetation and sediment has continued to build inward, which in turn has narrowed the river channel back to more like it was originally.
While a river with an abundance of cattails and other thick vegetation may be appealing to a wild marshland, it’s not deemed as appealing for a city which wants to utilize its warm, flowing water as an asset, and from where the town also got its name.
Bastian said the steps to revitalizing Fall River begins with the removal of the cattails, but will then consist of laying down a bottom layer of rip-rap-type rock, which has been made available to the city by the State Home. This same type of rock can be seen along the edge of Garden Street, where the city has been working to widen the road.
On top of the base layer of rip-rap will be layer of smaller rock about six to 12 inches thick. On top of that will be a GeoGrid, or geosynthetic material. This will be put down and connected together and then filled with soil and then seeded or turfed with native grasses.
In addition to removing cattails and reseeding with native grasses, the city also has plans to create access points to the river from the nearby Freedom Trail to make it easier for people to get in and enjoy the warm water of Fall River.