The Way of the Whitewater Park

Posted by Spalding Hurst

November 17, 2006

In the last decade communities have managed to build dozens of whitewater play parks and slalom training courses, often overcoming a force as indecipherable as nature herself, if not nearly so benign: local bureaucracy. Artificial whitewater courses are popping up across the country, in traditional whitewater towns like Salida, Colo., and less likely locales such as Fort Worth, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. You can spin and blunt on engineered rapids in Green River, Wyo., and Ogden, Utah, and challenge your slalom skills on a world-class training facility outside of Washington, D.C.

Whether the project is a single play feature added to an existing stream, a diverted channel or a completely self-contained artificial river surrounded by a stadium, artificial courses across the United States are providing local communities with new recreation opportunities.

Judging from the precedent of other outdoor sports, whitewater parks could help fuel a paddling boom. Olympic paddler-turned-course designer Scott Shipley envisions consumers “taking whitewater for a test drive” on artificial courses complete with moveable obstacles and adjustable play features. With the advent of indoor climbing gyms, a new generation of convenience-oriented enthusiasts is now a mainstay of the outdoor sports community.

Established boaters salivate at the thought of quality year-round whitewater just minutes from home or work. While all paddlers can appreciate a convenient spot to paddle for fun and fitness, few hear about the behind-the-scenes wrangling needed to secure permits, water rights and money to bring these water parks to life. With prices ranging from the tens of thousands to the tens of millions, the success of a whitewater park often relies on being able to fund its design and construction.

Truckee River, Reno, Nevada

The country’s best-publicized whitewater park, Reno, Nev., is redefining the whitewater destination. “It’s a true source of pride,” Reno resident and 2003 world freestyle kayaking champion Jay Kincaid says of Winfield Park’s $1.5 million whitewater course, which includes walking paths and sitting areas.

The park’s multiple channels offer something for every paddler, from rodeo boaters to slalom racers and beginners. World-class paddlers convened at this park in May of last year for the invitation-only Grand Opening—an event that was held during drought flows and in which hometown favorite Kincaid narrowly bested current World Champion Eric Jackson. Though the course has yet to see the average 2,000cfs spring flows it was designed for, 30,000 people visited the three-day festival, and the local inner tube concessionaire rang up 10,000 rentals during one three-month period.

Despite its success, the whitewater course was a huge gamble, even by Reno standards. “We’d secured funding through a statewide municipal bond, but we’d planned to start construction before the funds would be available, forcing us to face the possibility of having to wait an entire year,” says project manager Jim Litchfield. “We asked the owners of two large hotel casinos, Harrah’s of Reno and The Eldorado, to each provide a bridge loan of $500,000, interest free and unsecured.”

Remarkably, the casinos each wagered a half-million dollars that the course would be a success. The Reno city council also put up $500,000 to show its commitment to the project. The gamble paid off. “I don’t know if I could ever accurately portray our stress through this period,” says Litchfield.

Clear Creek, Golden, Colorado

The Clear Creek Whitewater Park in Golden, Colo., has become a centerpiece for the picturesque mountain town, a source of municipal pride and—most importantly for the development of whitewater parks nationwide—an economic catalyst. Built at an initial cost of $165,000, economic projections have the park bringing the town more than $1.4 million every year. That figure has inspired local governments in Colorado and beyond to pursue whitewater parks of their own.

But the Golden course set more than just a profitability precedent. It also has shaped the water-rights landscape in a part of the country where water rights traditionally have flowed to ranches.

Although whitewater parks don’t consume water, they do require water to flow downstream. To agricultural interests who count on holding scarce water resources in reservoirs, letting water flow downhill for something as frivolous as kayaking is a major threat (see sidebar). In 2001, Golden went to the Colorado Supreme Court to win guaranteed water releases for its whitewater park. “That decision was the big breakthrough, and Golden has shouldered the burden since as the lightning rod for subsequent water rights cases,” says Glenn Porzak, who has represented several Colorado cities in similar court cases. Golden, Vail and Breckenridge all have prevailed in court cases asking for recreational water releases. Gunnison’s case is in the courts now, and Steamboat Springs and Salida each have cases that are likely to go to trial. “A municipality’s strongest argument is that the use is non-consumptive and beneficial to the community,” Porzak says.

The State opposed the City’s recreational water demands because it considered the requested flows “excessive and unreasonable,” says Colorado Water Conservation Board lawyer Ted Kowalski. “The State is not against recreation. But we don’t know how to define a specific flow level as ‘reasonable’ according to the law on a course that’s going to be engineered anyway.”

Gore Creek, Vail, Colorado

Vail, Colo., is no stranger to whitewater, but until 2002, whitewater events such as the Teva Mountain Games were held on the Eagle River outside of town. Tourism is the lifeblood of Vail’s ski-town economy, and town planners recognized the value of positioning an outdoor-sports event in the downtown business district, particularly one that can draw visitors long after the snow melts from the ski slopes.

Early in 2002, the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau proposed modifying Gore Creek so that freestyle paddling events could take place in the heart of Vail Village. They commissioned a design that provided high-quality whitewater without looking man-made. With the backing of tourism bureau, the $130,000 project was completed in a matter of months. The park has since played host to the most aggressively promoted annual freestyle competition in the country, part of the Teva Mountain Games.

The Vail park has had a dramatic effect on an otherwise winter-based town. Despite the park’s short season, pre-construction studies projected more than $1 million per year into the local economy. Tourists can watch paddlers in action, and local boaters—while not flocking to the artificial creation when Colorado’s natural whitewater is running—give it a solid workout daily.

The park does, however, point out the hubris of trying to improve upon nature. Sedimentation from the yearly cycle of high water often neutralizes man-made features, requiring periodic maintenance. Sediment has already affected two of Vail’s features. The town is currently looking at ways to re-engineer the project, says Ian Anderson of the Vail Valley Chamber & Tourism Bureau. “We compromised too much of the project for aesthetics,” says Anderson, also an avid paddler. “With proper planning venues can be built to be both structurally sound and aesthetic.”

Upper Ocoee: An Olympian Effort

When the Ocoee River was tapped to host the 1996 Olympic slalom competition, engineers, led by John Anderson and Rick McLaughlin, converted the shallow shoals above the traditional put-in into one of the world’s premier slalom courses. The $7.7 million facelift to the river bed—plus more for a visitor’s center and other amenities—also created some excellent play spots, including the challenging hole above the aptly named drop Humongous.

Olympic organizers came to the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Ocoee, with exacting requirements. “The course had to fit into the environment, it had to be a world-class venue, and if it cracked one-eight of an inch we were done, as it needed to withstand periodic flooding of 30,000 cfs or more,” says Paul Wright, who managed the project for the U.S. Forest Service. On top of all that, it couldn’t cost the Atlanta Olympic organizers a dime.

U.S. wildwater team member David Jones and others rallied unprecedented political momentum, forcing the Forest Service to foot the construction costs and the Tennessee Valley Authority to supply the water. The cost savings allowed Atlanta organizers to sweeten their bid, and the slalom course became a key element in bringing the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta.

The race course and the Olympic slalom competition were both unqualified successes, but four days after the Olympic torch went out, the team that designed and built the course was reassigned. “The Forest Service was tired of dealing with it,” Wright says. In the years after the Olympics the TVA allowed only 10 to 20 releases per year, based on a burdensome fee system.

The last great slalom event planned on the Upper Ocoee, the 2001 Whitewater Slalom World Championships, was cancelled in the wake of Sept. 11. With infrequent releases and world-class play five miles downstream at Hell Hole, the Ocoee park has never established itself as a river-running and playboating attraction. The natural river section just downstream (popularly known as the Lower Ocoee, though technically the Middle Ocoee) hosts thousands of rafters every summer weekend.

Local outfitters and American Whitewater successfully resolved a seven-year effort to secure 54 releases each year on the Upper Ocoee in 2003 which will last for at least the next 15 years. Thanks to these releases, raft trips and non-commercial paddlers are enjoying the Upper Ocoee, and the venue once again has a chance to realize the potential shown during the 1996 Olympics.

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