Mud-encrusted approaches to the unusable Whitewater feature built by the city at a cost of $4 million.EXPAND
Mud-encrusted approaches to the unusable Whitewater feature built by the city at a cost of $4 million.
Jim Schutze

Put Chunks In River, $4 Million. Take Chunks Out, $7.5 Million. You Pay.

News reached me when I was out of town that the Dallas City Council will approve a cheaper partial removal of a failed concrete recreational feature in the Trinity River, opting to scrape out the guts of the Standing Wave but leave its ugly bones in place to save $5 million in demolition costs.

Beyond my windshield that day, the South Carolina Lowcountry soared ahead and all around in a seamless flow of water and grass. In a place like that, you could be forgiven for taking natural beauty for granted.

In Dallas, not so much. And by that I do not mean to say we don’t have any. We just have to look. Then we have to know what we’re looking at.

Ours originally was a flat, barely rolling, relatively treeless landscape, even though we have lots of trees that we have planted since Europeans started showing up 500 years ago. And then, of course, in the last half-century we have been working like busy beavers to bury everything inside a coffin of concrete.

The news I got that day about the Standing Wave was good. And maybe bad. Tearing out some of it is good. Not tearing out all of it could be bad.

At a cost of $4 million, seven years ago the city threw tons of concrete, broken rock and steel cabling into the Trinity River a mile and a half southeast of downtown to create artificial rapids for kayakers. The idea had been around for several years but not at all in the form it took when it was finally built.

Consultants who know about this kind of thing had sold the city some rough designs showing what you’d have to do to create a Colorado Rocky Mountain kayak experience on the bottom of a manmade Corps of Engineers floodway occupied by a big, muddy Texas prairie river. What would you have to do? A lot.

The original design called for creating a parallel universe next to the river, basically taking water out of the river and pouring it into a manmade, off-channel stream flowing through a park with fake elevations, kind of like a commercial water park.

There were all kinds of issues with that, including money, of course. But there also was some anxiety about whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of protecting the city from devastating flooding, would be cool about putting a big water park in the middle of the city’s main flood-safety drainage canal.

Whatever. The city wound up instead doing this cobbled-together, ugly mess of a thing in the middle of the river, probably partially designed by city engineers, although nobody at City Hall will accept parental responsibility. And it never worked.

The hydraulics were all off. The day before it was supposed to open, two canoeists almost got killed trying to float through a supposedly safe bypass channel, so the city closed it right after the opening ceremony.

I would like to have an annual commemorative ceremony just for that: The Day the City Opened the Whitewater Feature and Then Closed it Immediately. Open-Close-It Day. Kids from middle schools could compete to give winning speeches: “Why I think City Hall Should Think For a Couple Seconds Before It Does Stuff.”

In the last few years, City Hall has been engaged in a fight with the Corps of Engineers because the corps told the city the whitewater feature had shut off safe, two-way navigation on the river, which is not legal. I don’t get how that’s even a complicated legal concept. It’s like, “Sir, please move your truck.”

But the city had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do something about it, even proposing at one point that the congressional caucus should be called upon to lobby for a new national law saying the Trinity River no longer had to be navigable.

Really? I’m not saying it could not have been done. In fact, the city has been successful in the past in getting the Trinity exempted from other national requirements. But rather than just move your truck, you’re really going to lobby for a new national law saying trucks no longer have to be removed from that particular roadway? That feels less like a strategy than a syndrome.

The failed whitewater feature is a mile and a half southeast of downtown where a DART bridge crosses the Trinity river.
The failed whitewater feature is a mile and a half southeast of downtown where a DART bridge crosses the Trinity river.
via dallascityhall.com

Anyway, a new national law was not passed. The Trinity has to be navigable. The city must take out some portion of the concrete in order to restore navigability. The debate now is how much.

The thing is really seven massive, building-sized chunks of concrete and one smaller chunk. The two biggest chunks are underwater dams built across the river on massive beams. Each dam has a big wall on each bank, two walls per dam, so that makes six chunks — two dams and four walls.

And then there is the final smaller chunk, the so-called safe (not) bypass channel, or as I call it, the Cub-Scout-er-ator. Before the Cub-Scout-er-ator goes, I want D Magazine editor Tim Rogers to be forced at gunpoint to go through it in a kayak, but that’s another whole story. Let’s just say he called me a chicken once. And I was.

While I was out of town, don’t you know, the park department told the council it would cost $4.2 million to fix the Cub-Scout-er-ator bypass channel. When I got back and looked at the briefing documents, I didn’t see how the city planned to do it, but maybe it included giving the Cub Scouts plane fare to Colorado to do their kayaking. That would be my plan, along with flower arrangements for those who … let’s not go there.

Park officials said it would cost $7.5 million to take out all of the chunks. I don’t know. Four million to put the chunks in. Almost twice that to take them out. Who knows? This is why I think we should have the middle school kids give those speeches every year.

The cheapest option at a mere $2 million is called partial removal, which involves leaving in place the walls and taking out most of the dams but not the big beams beneath them. Stephen Young, who covered this for us when the park people did their briefing, tells me the $2 million partial-removal option is what the council will vote to do in the weeks ahead because it’s what it's got the money for.

I’m not saying it looks dodgy. It does involve leaving the walls in place, which means pinching the river together at high flow rates. In my experience, pinching big rivers is an unpredictable business. At the very least, if they do it that way I’d like to see Rogers test it, in a kayak, in a seersucker suit, bow tie and wingtip shoes with no socks.

Every once in a while when thinking about the whitewater feature, I like to do the one thing the city has never done, which is talk to someone who actually knows something. My go-to person on the Trinity has always been naturalist and Trinity River canoe outfitter Charles Allen (Trinity River Expeditions), who knows more about the Trinity River than anyone else I have ever been able to find.

I asked Allen to look at the city’s briefing document. He wrote me back a couple days later:

“My reaction is,” he said, “the armoring [wall] on river left should stay in place to keep the bank stabilized, while the concrete projections from river right should be removed since they constrict the channel.

“My other thoughts are whether the ‘beams’ left in place will project above the restored river bed, which could catch logs, debris, boaters or inadvertent swimmers. Any remnants of the structure left in the channel could act as a dam, impounding water and affecting the current. Deconstruction of this object in the river should be done as carefully as the original project should have been done.

“Final concern, will this involve another bypass channel and coffer dam, for how long, and will navigation be maintained?”

I hope when this comes up for another look, someone will ask Allen’s questions of the staff, especially the last one about navigation during the takeout process.

Who cares, you might ask. Well, that gets me back to my original thought about natural beauty. Several years ago, Allen took me by canoe down the reach of river that is just downstream from the whitewater feature, beyond the manmade channel built by the corps and into the Great Trinity Forest, which may be the biggest publicly owned urban natural area in the country.

Yes, the river has a certain sudsy-lawn-chemical smell, and of course, plastic bags hanging from low-hanging roots and branches flutter in the breeze like a million little ghosts of slobs giving you the finger. You have to get over that. You have to keep looking.

In the steep mud banks towering over us, Allen pointed out white-speckled bands of black that are shell middens — refuse heaps of charcoal mixed with bone and shell fragments, detritus left behind thousands of years ago by early inhabitants who camped on these banks for centuries. I guess shell middens were early man’s plastic bags.

We slid around corners to see long, low limestone shelves ahead, glistening where water seeped from the soil and plinked into the river in a toy-piano symphony. High above us, the treetops were bowed and swept by a wind we could not hear, as if it was blown about by silence.

A deeply beautiful place is there, created by nature over eons. Only if people can float into it, see it and truly appreciate what is there will it ever be restored and cherished as it should be. The longer it is shut off and unseen, the more it will be in danger of ruination.

Next time, we need to stop. Think, “River. Big. Nature. Eons.” The price for that option is zero million.

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