Rock Park, located at 1515 S. Rock Blvd., used to be known for thick brush and stagnant backwater harboring trash, flood debris and homeless camps. Now, these have been upgraded to unobstructed river views, an open beach and grass picnic areas. Expanded parking and a boat ramp provide easy public access to the Truckee River and the river bike trail. And, there's not a parking meter in sight.
"This is the river park," proclaimed Damonte Ranch resident Mike Moyer who drives 14 miles to play at Rock Park with son Kyle and chocolate lab Snickers. The river itself was redesigned for easier access and safer recreation. Large rocks and boulders were cemented together creating permanent swimming holes, rock plateaus and whitewater "riffles" for swimmers, divers and kayakers. Grouted rock banks are stable and mostly free of slippery mud and weeds.
Unfortunately, the park improvements had unseen side-effects on river and park inhabitants. The park-like setting, attractive to humans, is less attractive to fish due to habitat degradation, Nevada Department of Wildlife supervising fisheries biologist Kim Tisdale said recently. Fish populations along the Truckee River are surveyed each fall by NDOW biologists.
"In the disturbed area (at Rock Park), fall surveys showed lower fish density (fish per mile) than in undisturbed areas," Tisdale said. The removal of native vegetation, like willows, and installation of sterile river structures means less shade and food for young fish, Tisdale explained. Some fish have returned but the park's fish population will never be the same, she predicted.
"Limiting habitat diversity also limits species diversity," Tisdale said. She suggested a partial solution: the addition of more well-managed trees and vegetation along the river banks would provide shade to help cool the water for fish while adding to the attractive park setting.
Despite this hiccup, avid anglers still test their luck at Rock Park. On a recent day, a trio waded in then soon waded out empty-handed and headed for other fishing holes upstream. Crayfish divers with underwater masks and snorkels seem to have better luck.
Human progress goes on but the Truckee River is resilient and far from dead.
In summer 2009, Rock Park was sometimes so crowded that cars were parked along the shoulder of nearby Rock Boulevard.
"The response to the park speaks for itself," Sparks Parks and Recreation Director Stan Sherer said of Rock Park. "The community loves it."
Sherer said he would like to expand parking and install permanent restrooms when the city's budget woes are over.
"There's no plans (for the park) right now. We're just trying to tread water until things turn around," Sherer said. He expects the park to attract big crowds again this year as residents seek a hot weather oasis.
"It's not as busy as downtown Reno, there's less people and it's way nicer," said Reno resident Raymond Henninger as he played along the river's edge with 2-year old daughter Lillika. "It (Rock Park) used to be the trashy ‘crack’ park. Now it's beautiful."
"It's our first time here since the park remodel. We just found our summer spot," Henninger's wife Shalise confirmed. "Reno's downtown park is more for the kids to be loud and drink a lot."