The Trinity River's White-water Feature Is Still There, Still Stupid

Next month the "White Water Feature" on the Trinity River just south of downtown will be three years old. This ugly chunky mound of concrete, built at a cost of $4 million and intended to be a man-made rapids for canoeists and kayakers, was so ill-conceived, poorly designed, badly made and obviously dangerous that it has been officially closed to canoes since the day construction ended, ruining that stretch of river for what was previously its main recreational use.

City officials have steadfastly refused for three years to say who was responsible or what's going to be done about it. Yesterday I shipped my biannual request for an update to Dallas Park and Recreation Director Willis C. Winters. In the past his instruction for me has been that I should file a legal demand with the city attorney under the state's public information law for any update on the white water feature. But this time he emailed me back saying that the white water feature is now the responsibility of a little known city agency called "Trinity Watershed Management."

"You should contact either Liz Fernandez or Sarah Standifer," he wrote. "Regards."

Yes. Regards, indeed. I have put in my call to them, but my breath is not bated as I await a response.

You might be new in town and new to this topic, so please allow me to make sure you know what we're talking about. It's part of the Trinity River project, an enormous public works project sort of equivalent to Boston's "Big Dig," consisting mainly of a freeway they want to build on top of the river and some little park stuff around the edges.

See also: The Trinity River's 'Standing Wave' Crashes into Reality

Some of the rich goofies in charge of the project were on vacation in Colorado some years ago and saw a man-made whitewater park where kayakers were flying around in what are called "play boats," stubby little kayaks you can do tricks in. They thought something like that would be nice to have on the Trinity.

There were all kinds of things wrong with that idea from the beginning. When it floods once or twice a year, the Trinity is a big brown alluvial hog of a river, more like the Mississippi than the kind of twisty, fast-dropping, splish-splash stream the goofies were looking at up there. Creating a dam that will stay put it in the Trinity requires massive construction, and whatever you do that messes with that volume of water is going to create massive forces.

Our white-water feature looks more like the footings for a freeway bridge than a naturally occurring rock formation. The minute it was finished, experienced paddlers warned that at certain flows the thing would kill people who tried to canoe through it. The city's response was to close it before it opened, effectively shutting off canoe navigation on an entire stretch of the river.

It happens to have been one of the most beautiful and rewarding stretches of the river, right at the mouth of the Great Trinity Forest, where the river departs from the levee system and enters a realm of ancient seeps beneath Gothic tree arches, flowing past prehistoric Indian shell mounds and the ruins of 19th century navigational works.

The one untruth that gets repeated more frequently than any other is that Dallas doesn't have any natural terrain worth talking about. It's just not true. We do. But we've never had much respect for it.

It's not mountains, and it's not the sea, not the verdant hills of New England or the cinematic magnificence of the John Ford West. What's beautiful here has a subtler appeal that makes it a bit more of an acquired taste, and it tends to be hard to get to, lost and neglected in places like the river and creek bottoms that the shopping mall developers couldn't get to. But it's out there.

That's what makes the white-water feature such a sin. The Park and Recreation Department, which ought to view the natural environment as its most sacred trust, instead has brutally marred one of the city's most valuable natural assets. They should admit their mistake, get back in there, rip out that mess and do the best they can to heal the wound it leaves behind.

But, no. That would involve admitting error. That's the one thing the bureaucracy at Dallas City Hall never does, because it doesn't have to. The city manager system protects them from the kind of public pressure that might impose a little bit of humility. So instead they intend to just leave the thing there and do absolutely nothing about it. Next time I contact them, I expect to learn that the white water feature is now the responsibility of the Office of Strategic Customer Services and that I should stick my question where the sun don't shine.

What would it take for me to stop asking? They could shoot me. Otherwise, we will visit the topic again next fall.

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