City Wants Fight with Mother Nature, Corps of Engineers on Kayak Park

This un-beautiful mess was approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but now they disapprove. They can do that, because they are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
This un-beautiful mess was approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but now they disapprove. They can do that, because they are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Harry Wilonsky

Coming soon to a city near you (very near you): the prize fight of the century. In the one corner, with a left fist loaded with lawyers and a right glove packed with money, we have the Big Contender, Dallas City Hall, determined never to admit that the “whitewater feature,” a fake recreational rapids built in the Trinity River five years ago, was a stupid mistake.

In the opposite corner, getting her gloves laced up and her mouthpiece shoved in, we have the Immemorial Infinite Universal Heavyweight Champion of the Universe, Mother Nature!

Guess who’s gonna win?

City staff is busy as we speak trying to persuade the City Council that the whitewater feature in the river, a mountain of concrete, gravel and wire so dangerous and misshapen it had to be closed the day it opened, doesn’t have to be blasted out of the river and trucked off to a landfill but can be fixed instead.

Mother Nature says: “Try to fix it, and I will utterly destroy you.” That’s a paraphrase, of course. I have not actually spoken directly with Mother Nature. But I have looked at her stuff.

If you have driven over the Trinity when it’s flooded, you have looked at her stuff, too — gigantic cottonwood trees tumbling along like twigs in a rain-swollen gutter, enormous sheets of water pushing thousands of tons of silt down the river like fog, massive forces ripping and shoveling everything before them.

That’s who City Hall says it can beat. And it’s a rematch, unbelievably enough. In their first encounter five years ago, Mother Nature scored a medically scary lights-out K.O. in the first two seconds by saying, “Boo.” Softly.

Ready to place your bets?

Designed as a recreational feature for kayakers, the white water feature turned out instead to be a big, crazy, unintended dam. At even moderate flow-levels in the river, the white water feature makes navigation impossible on the stretch of the Trinity between North Corinth Street and Cedar Crest Boulevard a little under two miles southeast of downtown.

Blocking navigation is supposed to be illegal according to national law, and that’s another reason this fight makes no sense, but I’ll get to that. Right now let’s just concentrate on the wisdom of engaging in a prize fight with nature.

The white water feature as initially envisioned was to be one part of an entire off-channel water park built on side-canals cut into the land on the downtown side of the river — a circular canal for canoes, another canal for the fake rapids and some other gimcracks. That plan was nixed for reasons never revealed, probably because, like the fake “sailboat lakes” City Hall promised voters in 1998, the full water park would have gotten in the way of the expressway they really wanted to build along the river.

So some genius at City Hall said that instead of building it off to the side in a canal, the city should just stick the white water feature out into the middle of the river itself. Well, Mother Nature didn’t like that. The city had planned some typical City Hall fol-de-rol opening ceremony, but on the day before that event a couple of paddlers tried to get down the supposedly safe canoe “bypass” channel that the city had built across from the fake rapids. The chute was so wild and woolly that the paddlers almost got killed.

That happened because city staff had messed with the original design of the thing and in so doing had badly underestimated the forces in the river. The white water feature has been officially closed to navigation ever since.

As I said, you’re not supposed to do that to a river — wreck navigation. River navigation in this country is regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last January, fully five years into this problem without a single damn thing done ever to fix it, not one thing, even a mention of a solution, the city staff went to the City Council one day and told them they had to vote right away, that very day, on a solution. If they didn’t vote, the city manager told them, the Corps would cut off all water to the city and basically annihilate Dallas.

The so-called white water feature has been upside down since before it opened.
The so-called white water feature has been upside down since before it opened.
Harry Wilonsky

To their credit — I don’t give credit where it is due sometimes, and I should have said at the time that this was to the City Council’s credit — they looked at the city manager and said, and I paraphrase, “The Corps of Engineers is going to annihilate the city if we don’t do what you want us to do right now? Really? Did you forget to take your pill today?”

They didn’t do it. They didn’t vote. By the way, that was two months ago. Look around. We’re not annihilated. Yet. But it’s true. We do have to do something.

The staff — and I am getting this from multiple very good sources — is adamant that it doesn’t want to have to admit that it made a mistake, that the whole thing was stupid, that it was their fault and that they should all eat crow and die. Frankly, I could have asked my dog, Dorothy.

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“Dorothy, tell me honestly, do you think the city staff will be willing to admit that it made a big embarrassing mistake that has cost the city at least $5 million so far?”

“Woof.”

“Exactly my thought, Dorothy, and that’s why we make such good partners on these deals.”

No, they won’t admit it. Instead, they have structured a bid-seeking process so that fixing the thing will come out looking cheaper than just blowing it up and getting rid of it. The staff is telling the council they want to fix it with a process they call “design/build,” where they will be able to have input throughout the design and construction.

Yeah. Let me point something out to you. Their having input throughout the process is exactly how we got into this mess. The city hired a Colorado company to do the basic design for the water feature. Then the staff decided that the completed design, based on piling boulders in place in the river, was too expensive because there weren’t any boulders around.

City engineers decided to redesign the white water feature using gabion, a system of wire cylinders filled with gravel and concrete used in erosion control projects. When the city asked the original designers in Colorado to sign off on the cheap gabion substitute, the Colorado firm refused. The city hired a second engineering company to certify that the now thoroughly bastardized project would work.

Now the city is suing the Colorado firm. I figure the city figures it has an entire floor full of lawyers in City Hall. They have bottomless pockets, and they can sue anybody for anything. So why not punish somebody who dared to have integrity and defy them?

But here’s the joke. They want to fix it how? They’re going to come up with some kind of rinky-dink work-around, another side channel or something, that they think is going to fool Mother Nature. Mother Nature, of course, is going to come up with a big ugly flood.

She’s going to toss cottonwood trees and water with the power of grenades at that thing and make a bigger mess of it than she did the first one.

And then guess what happens? The person who explained this next part to me was Paul Sims, a member of the Dallas Park Board. Sims pointed out a thing that gets lost in all of this — that the city was able to build the white water feature in the first place because the Corps of Engineers approved it.

But, wait. If the Corps approved it, how can the Corps turn around now and tell Dallas to tear it out or fix it? One reason. The Corps can do that, because the Corps is the Corps.

They’re older than the country. In 1775 before we had a country, they were the battlefield engineers at the Battle of Bunker Hill. (The British took Bunker Hill, by the way.)

Sims said to me the other day: “When we originally did this, we had the approval of the Corps, and now it seems as if the Corps has come back and said, ‘We are retroactively revoking the approval for you to have done this.’

“Whether it was wise for us to have done it in the first place is up for debate, but we apparently had their blessing. So I think the fear is that if we do engineer a fix, go through with it, get approval from the Corps and do the fix, there is nothing to stop the Corps from coming back later and saying, ‘You know what, that wasn’t good enough. Even though we approved it, you still have to modify it further.’

“So it could end up being just a rat-hole that we’re shoveling money down.

“This was a terrible idea to begin with. We did it on the cheap. I think we need to acknowledge that and to say, ‘This was a bad idea,’ and to make it right.”

Let me pause here for just one second. I need to ask Dorothy.

“Dorothy, in your opinion, will city staff have the wisdom to admit its mistake, cut its losses, stop betting against Mother Nature, stop trying to blame innocent victims for its own fecklessness and stop putting the city’s neck under the boot-heel of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?”

Oh, my gosh. I’ll just take that as a no. (I don’t know who could have taught that dog to use that sort of language.)


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