Billings Study on Whitewater Park

Posted by Spalding Hurst

March 14, 2007

Large rocks would be placed in Yellowstone River to create waves or rapids…

Of The Gazette Staff

Billings has the opportunity to be a regional whitewater mecca if it constructs a play park in the Yellowstone River, according to a river engineer.

"It would draw from across the region," said Nick Turner, with Hydraulic Design Group. "People will drive four hours to go to a play wave."

Hydraulic Design Group has offered to conduct a feasibility study on a whitewater park in Billings. The price tag on the study is just more than $32,000.

"It would be helpful if you could raise money for a feasibility study," Darlene Tussing, alternate modes coordinator for the city of Billings, told the Beartooth Paddlers Society Thursday night. "There are people in this community who want to make this happen."

Tussing didn't sugarcoat the fact that selling the idea of a whitewater park to the community would take some work. But she said such a facility would be an enhancement to the city, just like bike and walking paths.

"You can sell it as a trail, it's a river trail," she said. "Rivers were some of the first trails historically used in our area. And when you create something nice, other people will come along and enhance that."

According to one report, as of last year there were 34 whitewater parks under construction or already built across the U.S., almost half of them in Colorado. A study by the Outdoor Industry Association said whitewater recreation is one of the fastest-growing outdoor recreation activities in the United States.

Missoula recently created a play wave in the middle of its downtown on the Clark Fork River. Casper, Wyo., has a whitewater park on the Platte River that was constructed as part of a refinery environmental restoration project, which also included a golf course and bike paths.

Other cities have seen substantial economic gain from developing river play areas. Turner said a study by Golden, Colo., estimated the town’s water park added $2 million a year to city coffers. Turner also said creating a whitewater park brings more people to the river, saying one study estimated there were 12 visitors for every paddler.

“It’s a place for people to come down and experience the river,” he said. “These types of recreation enhancements on rivers throughout the U.S. really improve quality of life. They bring people to the river. By introducing more people to the river, it creates more river stewards.”

The water features are typically made by strategically locating large rocks in the river to create waves or rapids. Any design would include room for passage by other river users, such as drift boats and jet boats, Turner said. An added benefit of such features is that they naturally create holding pools and eddies for fish. He also noted that the opportunity exists to tie such a Billings facility into current events, such as the annual Peaks to Prairie race and the Big Sky State Games.

Turner was hesitant to suggest a cost range for construction of a whitewater park, since there are so many variables. But he said $300,000 to $500,000 would be on the low end.

“More features don’t necessarily add a whole lot more to the cost,” he said.

Engineering of the project would include constructing it to withstand 100-year floods, ice jams and flows of 20,000 cubic feet per second.

Interestingly, the master plan for Coulson Park includes a whitewater play area in its design.

“At least we have a foot in the door with this,” Tussing said.

Brett French can be reached at or at 657-1387.

Published on Saturday, March 10, 2007.


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