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Drowning the Whistleblower on the Doomed Trinity River Wave

Chris Gash

Who else but Dallas City Hall could take a simple thing like kayaking and turn it into snaggle-clawed sulfurous lawsuit hell? But that's what I smell ahead for the Dallas Wave, the fake whitewater thing the city has created in the Trinity River.

For two weeks I have been trying to get someone at City Hall to tell me who is responsible for the unbelievably screwed-up man-made kayaking rapids in the river. It was supposed to be a whitewater playground for kayakers.

On May 11 the city opened a paddling trail down the river to the wave, but on the same day they barred public access to the wave, because it was that dangerous. Some canoeists and kayakers said it was even capable of killing people.

And then the money. The thing started out at a planned cost of $1.5 million. The city now has invested more than $4 million. The park board voted last week to spend another $76,000 to pay an engineering firm to find out what's wrong with it. Then I assume we'll have to pay some more to fix it.

So who designed it?

The Dallas Wave was meant to create turbulence or "whitewater" for the amusement of certain kayakers called play-boaters. Play-boaters are kayakers who use very short duck-billed kayaks to play around in a rapids. They don't go up and down the river. They just stay in the rapids and flip themselves upside down and stuff.

Why has Dallas spent $4 million and counting for the amusement of people in duck-billed kayaks? Sorry, you might as well ask me if God can make a rock too big for Him to roll.

I do know this. A lot of people now want to know why the thing is such a wreck and a failure. City council member Angela Hunt recently sent a memo to City Manager Mary Suhm asking, "Why aren't the original engineering, design and construction firms required to fund not only the cost of analyzing the problems they apparently caused but also fixing them?"

But here is where things begin getting very duck-billed and convoluted. I have contacted the people who were the alleged designers, a company in Boulder, Colorado, called Recreation Engineering and Planning, twice — once last April and again last week. Last week I asked REP if the thing that is in the Trinity River now is what they designed.

Gary Lacy, whose title at REP is chief engineer, told me in an email: "The design was a team approach with various civil, structural, and hydraulic designers as well as planners and landscape architects, local and out of state."

I don't know what that means. Out of what state? I called him, but he wouldn't take my call, so I emailed him back and said I didn't understand his answer. "Is this your design or not?" I asked.

No response. Radio silence.

Last April, in a conference call with the staff of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, I asked who had designed the Dallas Wave. John Reynolds, the city's project manager for the wave, said, "It was designed by a water park consulting firm out of Boulder, Colorado."

We established we were talking about REP, headed by Gary Lacy. I asked: "That design that I'm looking at is what he drew?"

Reynolds said, "That is correct."

But at about the same time, I also interviewed Shane Sigle, the engineer at REP who did the work on the Dallas Wave. I asked Sigle why there was such a difference between the Dallas Wave, an ugly massing of concrete and wire that looks like the back end of a sewage treatment plant, and the beautiful projects I saw on REP's web page, built with boulders and rocks to look like natural rapids and waterfalls.

"You know," Sigle said, "that's a question I was asking also. That's not something that we had control over."

I said: "That wasn't your deal then. You didn't get to choose the materials."

"That's right," he said. "We did not get to choose the materials. We were just responsible for the geometry and the slopes and the width and those types of things."

Aha! When I listened again to that April interview last week, I began to get the picture and see the problem. The city hired these guys in Boulder who have a national reputation for designing superb beautiful water parks in rivers. But they didn't let them fully design our project.

The city took the math from them, the geometry. And then the city, using its own engineers or a contractor, built the thing. In the process, the finished project veered significantly from the original concept, which I assume didn't include killing people.

Now what we have is a mess that can't be used, from which the public is barred, at a cost already four times the original estimate, with the cost of litigation about to be added to the tab. And nobody is sure who gets the blame for the final outcome — the Colorado people, the city, the construction contractor, somebody else? Everybody is probably girding their loins for litigation, so nobody can afford to speak plain English when you ask them a question.

 

Lovely.

It's worse. In listening to that April conversation with Park and Rec, I heard something I hadn't really snapped to at the time. Willis Winters, the very honest man who is assistant director of Park and Rec, actually told me in that conversation that Sigle had come to Dallas after the Dallas Wave was built, canoed it with outfitter Charles Allen and warned the city that the wave, as built, was not right. Sigle told them it had to be fixed. Allen, proprietor of Trinity River Expeditions, agreed.

Allen, the longest-established canoe outfitter on the Trinity, is generally regarded as the reigning authority on canoeing the river in this region. For that reason, I called Allen last spring just before the scheduled opening of the wave and asked him what he thought of it.

He didn't call me. I called him. Allen is an honest guy who loves the river and speaks his mind. He told me the wave was dangerous as hell, and he was deeply worried that it was going to kill somebody. A week later a kayaker got caught in it and said she felt she came within an inch of dying before she got out.

The week before the wave was to be opened to the public, I wrote a column quoting Allen. I suspect the appearance of that column had a lot to do with the city's very belated decision to close the wave to the public the same day they held the dedication ceremony. And by the way, if you collect absurdities, I want 50 bucks for that one. They should have had a banner: "WELCOME TO THE DALLAS WAVE! NOW GET OUT!"

Since then, Allen, who earns his living renting out canoes and guiding, has been the target of what I can only describe as a City Hall vendetta. The city attorney recently notified Allen by letter that he will be arrested if he enters the park area around the Dallas Wave in order to launch canoeing parties downriver from a place below the wave.

The city's argument is that Allen is subjecting his clients to danger of injury, because another park and recreation construction project is going on at a far end of the site. But I wrote to Winters last week and asked if the city intends to arrest all canoers who portage — carry their canoes — around the wave and through the same city park from which Allen is now banned.

That, you see, would be against the law. It is ancient common law, in fact, that you can't stop people from portaging around a hazard in a river, especially if it's your hazard. I assume the city figured that out. That's why in their written responses to my written questions they said they would not arrest "recreational users."

"These recreational users will not be considered trespassers," the city said, "as long as they stay out of the active construction zone as they portage around the wave on the shoreline sidewalk and re-enter the river on the concrete ramp below the wave."

But that's what Allen needs to do, too. And he needs access to the parking lot the city built at public expense at the opposite end of the facility from the construction activity. But he is still subject to arrest if he even enters the area.

The vast majority of the recreational users who canoe down the Trinity in Dallas are Allen's clients. Only a tiny minority are putting their own boats in the river or renting from somebody else.

Allen is the main reason anybody even knows that it's possible to canoe down the Trinity in Dallas. He is a smart, gentle-souled outdoorsman who loves the river. He has spoken about this issue out of his concern for human life and limb. He told me last week that the threat letter, along with other planned closings of access to the river at other sites later this year, may put him out of business.

Council member Hunt sent her memo to the city manager asking for answers August 3. She hadn't heard back at the time of this writing. But, look, this is an issue that cries out for intervention and direction from the city council and mayor, our elected representatives. Only they can get the answers.

Who built this? Who chose the materials? Whose final design is this? Who is responsible for this catastrophe? What will it take to set things right?

 

And then I have one last question: Whose idea was it to hound Charles Allen out of business over this? Why is he the one to suffer?


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