Recreation on the Rivers in Leavenworth

The City of Leavenworth is situated at the confluence of the Icicle and Wenatchee Rivers. It also is heavily reliant on tourism to support both local businesses and city government. The high concentration of tourists especially during the summer months is putting a strain on our natural resources. This includes hiking trails in the mountains and recreational use of its rivers. Of growing concern to residents has been the explosion in the use of the Icicle and Wenatchee Rivers for tubing, river rafting, and more recently, stand up paddle boarding.

In 2019, two local residents contacted staff at Chelan County and the City of Leavenworth as well as other state and federal agencies to find out what agency was in charge of protecting these rivers from overuse by residents and tourists. The answer appears to be no one. After many meetings and discussions, Chelan County’s Natural Resources Department agreed to take the lead in setting up an advisory committee to study the issue and to develop recommendations. The Leavenworth Rivers Recreational Group was formed and has members representing the City of Leavenworth (City Council and Mayor), staff from Chelan County, the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, federal and state agencies, Cascade Medical, Leavenworth Outdoor Center (a tubing company), and residents who live next to these rivers.

The concerns about overuse of the rivers range from nuisance issues affecting residents (e.g., noise, public drunkenness, illegal parking, etc.) to concerns about negative impacts on the many wild species that depend on the river for survival (e.g., salmon, bears, etc.) The group conducted a comprehensive survey of residents to assess their perceptions about these impacts. Seven hundred people responded to the survey and 90% of the respondents said environmental impacts were their main concern.

This survey was followed by a study designed to characterize existing recreational use within the stream reaches that pass through the City of Leavenworth. Tasks included making estimates of the number of users and documenting the problems associated with recreation on these two rivers. During the summer of 2022, it was estimated that over 50,000 people accessed these river stretches for recreational use, primarily tubing and rafting. Forty percent of the use was attributed to commercial outfits that cater to tourists.

The group decided to take several steps to mitigate some of the impacts caused by the users of the river. These included:

  • River and trailhead Ambassadors to educate users about “leave no trace” principles and to make counts of recreational users.
  • Outreach materials were prepared and distributed in order to give users information about websites and maps of the area.
  • Signage was added at appropriate put in and take out locations. Warning signs were also put at spots where tubers and others need to exit the river to avoid dangerous stretches of water.
  • Life jackets were made available at the US Fish Hatchery and Barn Beach.
  • The County’s Sheriff’s Search and Rescue group was involved in assessing how best to inform users of the hazards of the river.
  • A free shuttle from downtown Leavenworth downs Icicle and E Leavenworth Roads with stops for tubers and others to get off was provided. The goals are to reduce traffic and illegal parking.
  • River Safety Group was created by Commissioner Bob Bugert to improve safety especially for users unfamiliar with the dangers of high water and rapids.

The Leavenworth Rivers Recreation Group plans to continue its work and is planning to focus its efforts on the following tasks in 2023.

  • Infrastructure improvements such as parking and signage.
  • Enforcement of existing laws.
  • Development of a river use permit system.
  • Education and outreach.
  • Seasonal closures during periods of high use in certain locations or by types of user (e.g., tubers).
  • A Study of water quality during times of high river usage.
  • A Management Plan to guide future actions and priorities.