Tumultuous Waters: Man-made “Dallas” Wave Not Up to Snuff

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A man-made whitewater park on the Trinity River in Dallas is making waves, but not the kind it’s supposed to. The city is in an uproar over a $4 million kayaking playground built in 2011 that has never functioned as intended. Now the Army Corps of Engineers is giving the city an ultimatum: either repair it, or remove it…

The problem lies not in the wave itself, which functions well, but in the bypass around it, originally designed to offer safe passage for canoeists and other river users. The corps first expressed concern about the “bypass channel not functioning as intended in the permit application” in 2011. Its “calm passage,” the corps maintains, can be “far more turbulent and dangerous than the main wave.”

Stakeholders agree. “One of my customers got hurt on it,” says Charles Allen, owner of nearby Trinity River Expeditions. “It pushes paddlers toward some squirrelly water and a concrete wall. It’s a good design for the actual wave drop, but not for those trying to get by the bypass safely.”

The corps’ deadline has prompted the city to seek proposals to repair or remove the structure, and to possibly take legal action against park designer Schrickel, Rollins and Associates (SRA) of Arlington, Va. “It’s a navigable river by definition, which means you can’t obstruct navigation on it,” says Allen. “They messed it up.”
Like botching a line in a rapid, here’s what went wrong. While the wave itself works as intended, says Allen – it was sub-contracted out by SRA to Colorado whitewater park designer Recreation Engineering & Planning (REP) – they didn’t use REP to build the bypass channel and instead farmed its construction out to someone else. “It might’ve been the journey of the low bid,” he says. The result: a “safe” passage that’s anything but.

Adds REP president Gary Lacy: “The local consultant took it over for the design and construction. The whitewater waves look good, but it’s the canoe passage they feel is too difficult for novice canoeists. It’s unfortunate they didn’t deal with this earlier.”

Other cities near and far have had far better success stories, with their parks contributing to the local economy. Rubbing salt in the wound, in nearby Ft. Worth, a man-made wave was built on the Clear Fork of the Trinity to replace a series of low-head dams. And that one works great, says Allen. “It’s more fun than it was, and less dangerous,” he says.

The whitewater park trend has also seen huge success elsewhere. Estimates put the number of whitewater parks in the country at more than 100, from those replacing low-head dams in the Midwest to purely recreational river enhancements out West. In the once automotive hotbed of Michigan, no fewer than four new parks are underway, creating an economic engine that relies on water instead of gasoline. In many cases, they also convert outdated and dangerous low-head dams into recreational amenities.

The parks are large and small, from a $1.5 million park on the Truckee River in downtown Reno, Nev., to the $37 million National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C., and $23 million Adventure Sports Center atop Maryland’s Wisp ski area, both of which pump water back upstream and include George Jetson-like conveyer belts for kayakers. Lacy says his firm has built five new parks in the past two years alone.

Perhaps no state is riding the wave more than Colorado, which has nearly 30 such parks, more than a third of the country’s total. Last year Montrose added a new park on the Uncompahgre River to the tune of $7 million, and the year before Gunnison did so. In 2014, Grand County built a new wave on the Colorado, giving the waterway its second park after Glenwood built its whitewater park in 2008. “It balances out the tourist season, eliminating the slower economic periods of the year,” says Glenwood spokesperson Vicky Nash. “It’s a great asset to the community.”

It was Golden, a Frisbee’s throw from the Coors plant, which got the trend going with the first publicly funded park in the nation, built for $165,000 by REP in 1996. “Golden broke the mold by allocating municipal funds solely for a destination whitewater park,” says Lacy. “They approached it as they would a new softball field.”

According to city’s director of public works Dan Hartman, it now brings in 40,000 visitors and up to $4 million annually to the community. Denver’s Stratus Consulting, located near Denver’s Confluence Whitewater Park on the South Platte River downtown, maintains such features can contribute as much as $7 million annually to local economies. Salida’s park, says REP’s Mike Harvey, has single-handedly turned town’s annual FIBArk festival weekend into a six-figure money-maker. “It’s like South Beach, Rocky Mountain-style,” he says.

All this (besides the Cowboys) is what has Dallas so up in arms. They say everything’s big in Texas, and when it comes to Trinity wave downtown, this includes the mess created by the municipality.

“They spent a lot of public money on it so it ought to be done right,” says Allen, “And it will probably cost even more to repair. The best thing for tax payers might be to just take it out.”