July 28, 2005

Whitewater parks move into the mainstream

  • Parks provide recreational, environmental and economic benefits
    Journal Staff Reporter

    Images courtesy REP
    Scott Shipley, REP engineer and former Olympic athlete, is part of a design team doing preliminary work on whitewater parks in Spokane and Yakima.

    Whitewater parks attract the usual suspects: kayakers, canoeists and rafters. But these engineered water channels are broadening their appeal as they cater to people interested in fishing, people-watching and even downtown development.

    Users often pay nothing to use a park, but the facilities can bring millions of dollars into the local economy, according to Recreation Engineering and Planning, a Boulder, Colo., whitewater design firm.

    Paddling groups in Washington state want to catch the wave as they pitch the recreational, environmental and economic benefits of whitewater parks in their communities. A group in Yakima is in the early stages of park planning, and a Spokane group is preparing to start construction next summer.

    According to an impact study conducted by REP, a whitewater park near the Sandifur Bridge in the Spokane River would cost $425,000. The state has already appropriated $400,000 toward the project, and private fundraising is expected to cover the rest.

    Scott Shipley is a Kitsap County native and engineer at REP, and has worked on the proposals for Spokane and Yakima.

    After training and competing as an Olympic athlete in rivers around the world, Shipley said he now prefers the proximity and amenities found in whitewater parks.

    "The biggest difference by far, isn't so much experience — it's the convenience," he said.

    While Shipley is excited to bring water sports to urban areas, he said the creation of a park is only part of the process — it's also about river restoration.

    "We're not trying to create a skateboard park in a river," Shipley said. "We use natural rock to armor the bank and create pockets for natural habitat and riparian zones."

    As an added level of environmental protection, whitewater parks have to get approval from the Army Corps of Engineers under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Applicants must show they haven taken steps to avoid or mitigate wetland impacts.

    The Clear Creek Whitewater Park in Golden, Colo., has attracted the interest and support of environmentalists.

    "A lot of the people from the local environmental groups are people that use the whitewater facility," said Jeff Oxenford, vice-chairman of the Golden Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. "The boating community is very environmentally sensitive."

    "Anybody can go in there and move a rock in a river," he said. "But to do it properly — that's when you need someone who's got some experience."

    Making waves

    Whitewater parks can be built in existing water channels or created from scratch.

    In Golden, the whitewater park was built in Clear Creek, a streambed previously disturbed by gold mining. The city has spent $342,000 on the park, said Sabrina Henderson, city communication manager.

    REP installed drop structures in the streambed that were constructed of piled rocks and concrete to hold the rocks together. Oxenford said drop structures make waves, also known as hydraulics or holds. A perfect wave allows kayakers and canoeists to stay on the wave and do multiple tricks. A poorly constructed drop lets users do only one trick before they get thrown off.

    REP returned to Golden in 2002 to add six new drops and repair rocks that had moved.

    In Charlotte, N.C., REP designed a three-channel course made with 8-inch concrete walls, Shipley said. Landscape architects will create banks, pathways and patios on the site, which was originally slated for soccer and baseball fields.

    A giant pump will recirculate water between collection pools at the top and bottom. Shipley said the equipment will cost about $2 million, and the annual electricity is estimated to cost $750,000 to $1 million. Despite the high expense, park planners estimate a 20 percent return on investment, he said.

    The course will be part of a $25 million U.S. National Whitewater Center that is scheduled to open in 2006. It has been designated as an official training site by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

    In addition to the whitewater feature, the master plan includes indoor and outdoor climbing facilities, bicycle and pedestrian trails, a lodge and conference center, and a 37-acre campground area.

    Shipley said the ideal site for a whitewater park is adjacent to a river with a sufficient drop in elevation, but REP has created parks on rivers with as little as a 3-foot drop.

    Shipley said there is tremendous potential for whitewater parks in Western Washington, particularly around North Bend, Enumclaw and Maple Valley.

    Erosion is a risk

    Shipley said the big risk in building parks is erosion. The solution: bank protection and hardened access points.

    Instream erosion has not been a problem at the 6-year-old Golden park, according to Oxenford. The side banks are supported with natural rocks to prevent erosion and accommodate spectators. But erosion caused by people is a concern as the park faces "almost too much success," Oxenford said.

    The pathways and parking do not support the number of users. The trail that runs along the river is overrun by bikers, pedestrians, pets and boaters. Social trails are developing where people get in and out of their boats or where people let their pets walk into the river.

    In response, Shipley said REP is looking for ways to improve access points. Rocks and concrete are placed along paths to prevent the natural surfaces from wearing down.

    Is it good for fish?

    Shipley said fish and wildlife organizations in Washington state are concerned about habitat protection, especially for salmon. "One of our biggest challenges is to educate people in Washington," he said.

    According to a study by Claire McGrath of the University of Colorado, Boulder, instream structures at a whitewater park have impacts similar those caused by stream restoration structures. They provide deep pool habitat, whitewater cover and water aeration.

    She concluded the structures provide beneficial habitat for juvenile and adult salmon, trout and char fish populations.

    Oxenford said he thinks the whitewater park has improved fish habitat in Golden.

    "Unfortunately or fortunately, some of our best trout fishing is right in the middle of our whitewater park," Oxenford said. "We made some very deep holes in spots the trout are just loving, so our flyfishermen have been grooving out there. They think it's great."

    A local fishing store conducts fly-fishing lessons in calm pockets in the park, and there is even talk of a establishing a premium trout fishing area upstream from the park.

    Whether cities are considering whitewater parks for the recreational, economic, or environmental aspects, these parks are rising in popularity on local and national levels.

    "Everybody in the community is now connected to the river," Oxenford said of Golden's park. "This has far exceeded everyone's expectation of uses."

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