Dallas In Uproar Over Flawed Whitewater Park

The $4 million project was supposed to revitalize the Trinity River, but the feds are pressuring city to fix it and no one’s happy.


What was supposed to be a gift to paddlers on the Trinity River in Dallas, Texas, has turned into a nightmare of lost opportunity: The city is in an uproar over a $4 million kayaking playground built in 2011 that has never worked right. Boaters aren’t happy, the city isn’t happy, and even the feds aren’t happy, with the Army Corps of Engineers giving the city an ultimatum: either fix the thing or remove it completely.

The problem lies not in the wave itself, which functions well, albeit more radically than planned, 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” back in 2011. Its “calm passage,” the Army maintains, can be “far more turbulent and dangerous than the main wave.”

Locals 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.”

Pressure from the Corps 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, Virginia. The city says that could take 90 days, but the Corps said that’s too long and wants an answer by March 18.

Here’s what went wrong. While the wave itself works as intended, says Allen, the work of building the bypass channel was sub-contracted to Colorado whitewater park designer Recreation Engineering & Planning (REP), but the work instead was farmed out to someone else. 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.”

Dealing with it, though, is expensive. It could cost as much as $3 million to $5 million to fix-and the same amount to remove. Adding pressure were rumblings that the Corps might shut down the city’s water supply if it didn’t address the problem.

DALLAS THE EXCEPTION?
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 in the West. In the once-automotive hotbed of Michigan, four new parks are underway, creating an economic engine that relies on water instead of gasoline.

Reno during a river festival. Photo by Rick Cooper

Reno during a river festival. Photo by Rick Cooper

Parks range in size from a $1.5 million park on the Truckee River in downtown Reno, Nevada, to the $37 million National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina 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 found the parks to create new revenue streams for local economies and, in certain cases, serve as the basis for procuring new Recreational In-Channel Diversion (RICD) water rights, championing recreation as a “beneficial” use of the river’s water. The state has nearly 30 such parks, more than a third of the country’s total, from resort communities like Vail, Breckenridge, and Steamboat Springs to towns such as Lyons, Boulder, Pagosa Springs, Durango, Salida, and Pueblo. Last year Montrose added a new park on the Uncompahgre River to the tune of $1 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, that 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. The park in the whitewater hotbed of Salida, says REP’s Mike Harvey, also a partner in river SUP company Bad Fish, has singlehandedly turned town’s annual FIBArk festival weekend into a six-figure money-maker. “It’s like South Beach, Rocky Mountain-style,” he says.

Despite the economic and social potential of a well-executed wave park, Dallas seems to have turned its back on the idea. Nobody’s happy, Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez called it a “mistake,” and the odds of anyone voting to sink more into the Trinity are low.

“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 taxpayers might be to just take it out.”

Photo of Dallas by Teddie Bridget Proctor

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