About this time of year, one of my summer rituals has been to pack up a bottle of water, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and a can of bug spray and hike to the Trinity River bottoms to do my annual piece on “Stupid Dallas Fake Kayak Rapids Still There, Still Stupid.”
Imagine the jolt to my system one day last week when I got down there — still not easy to do, by the way — and found that the “standing wave” or “whitewater feature,” as the city calls the stupid fake kayak rapids, was gone! Vanished! Vamoosed!
It had been eliminated and without my permission! Without even a fare-thee-well! In its place I found a wasteland of mud and eerie debris.
I began snapping photos immediately, also a short film on my phone to document the depredation. Well, I’m not sure. Is it depredation if the thing they depredate was itself a depredation? OK, I can’t work out problems like that anymore since I quit drinking. But how in the world?
Then as I was snapping away, I heard a kind of forlorn gurgling somewhere out there on the river, almost like a voice croaking, “Help me! Help me!” I put away my phone, walked closer to a dubious mud bank crackled and grayed by the harsh July sun. Peered forward. And by gosh, there it was!
A ridge of ugly concrete wrapped in wire broke the brown swirling water like a fist reaching for air. A few yards beyond, the top of a submerged wall hissed and rattled in the swift current like a kicking leg.
The stupid fake kayak rapids was still out there! An unusually wet spring, with rains stretching well into summer, had raised the water-level in the river enough to put the whole thing underwater, but it was all still out there. I hadn’t noticed the paved approaches when I walked up, because they are now mostly buried beneath layers of baked slime.
It’s there. It’s just totally inaccessible, semi-invisible, subsumed and slimed by nature. Oh, what a relief.
In fact, as I finally comprehended, not only is the stupid fake kayak rapids thing still very much there, it’s even more stupid than ever. I think it has now achieved the status of a landmark! School kids should be taken there on buses and given tours. I volunteer!
“What you see before you, dear ones, is a staggering example of what could happen to the entire planet if you were to continue in your very mistaken path of respect for your parents. I urge you all to go home now and kill them.”
Because, you know what? As I hiked back out of there — and it’s as stupidly hard to get out as it is to get in — I gazed around and looked at all of the gigantic crap the city and other units of government have imposed on that fragile landscape — so-called paved nature trails so stupidly overbuilt and massive they could carry Greyhound buses, way too many skinny bridges instead of one fat one, all kinds of construction where clearly the river itself was treated only as a hurdle and never as a wonder bestowed by an over-generous and way too trusting Mother Nature. And I thought, “They’re killing this planet, and somebody needs to stop them.”
Obviously I would never really tell children to go home and whack their own parents, but I might endorse some kind of program in which the parents were transported to rural camps for political re-education. (If that ever does happen, this column is my proof, by the way, that I was for it, so, you know, I should not be sent myself.)
Left to my own devices, I probably would heap all blame for the stupid fake kayak rapids on the city. I have lost count — because everyone has lost count — of the money the city has spent on it since building it in the river five years ago. Originally it was to cost less than $2 million. It quickly got up to about $4 million.
You may remember that the “standing wave” as it was first called (I thought at first maybe the name was a reference to Miss America) had to be closed the very week it opened because the thing turned out to be a giant version of an in-sink garbage disposal but big enough to devour large canoes in a single swallow, capable of ingesting entire Cub Scout troops without a burp, although, I concede, that never actually happened, and I know we’re all very happy it did not. But it did not happen only because the city wised up after the first few canoes got sucked under and stopped telling people to take Cub Scouts down there.
None of that, really, is why the Stupid Fake Kayak Rapids qualifies now as a monument. Anybody can goof. The city relied on some bad engineering, some of which came, I believe, from the city’s own staff. All they needed to do was blow the thing up, cart off the debris and reassign a couple of engineers to animal control.
But, no. The city simply has left the thing out there, refusing to admit its mistake and never actually doing anything like fixing it or getting rid of it. Instead, the city has papered it over with mixed messages and odd warnings (“Hazard Ahead”), transparently conveying City Hall’s preoccupation with having an excuse for every problem rather than a solution to any problem.
So, yes, I would love to blame it all on City Hall. But, of course, that would require me to give a pass to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the true landlord of the river because the Corps is the ultimate regulator and enforcer of navigable rivers in this country. (By the way, before I forget, I should remind you that one of the solutions proposed by Mayor Mike Rawlings was to get the city’s congressional delegation to gin up legislation declaring the river “not navigable,” hence no longer subject to the authority of the Corps. I wondered at the time why, if the city was going to go to all that much trouble anyway, they wouldn’t go whole hog and get the Trinity declared “not a river.” I think that’s what they really believe, anyway.)
But, no, we can’t leave the Corps out of the blame-game. Last January I told you how the city staff raced all breathless into a closed-door executive session with the City Council and told them, quick, quick, they had to authorize $3 to $5 million to fix the stupid fake kayak rapids or the Corps would shut off all of the city’s drinking water! You can go here to see Scrib’d copies of some of the correspondence between the Corps and the city.
The council might have done it, but cooler heads among the younger members prevailed, arguing it was unlikely the Corps wanted to see headlines like, “Army Corps Shuts Down Major Texas City In Dispute Over Stupid Fake Kayak Rapids.” And in fact, as soon as the story went public, both the Corps and the city issued statements insisting they had never really disagreed about anything, everyone was moving forward arm-in-arm toward a brighter future, and here, six months later, we are. Gurgle-gurgle.
Look, I’m a fan of government. I know we need government. Where government sticks to what it’s supposed to stick to — treating the sewage, timing the traffic lights, things like that — I think it does pretty well. The people I meet who are public servants often are, if anything, a cut or two above garden variety.
In this case, I happen to know that the stupid fake kayak rapids came from a particular and pernicious corruption of normal government function in which private well-connected persons, just back from vacation in the Rockies, decided Dallas should have a kayak park like one they had seen up there, but, of course, given that it would cost multiple millions, two or four or seven or something like that, they didn’t want to pay for it.
Because power is so diffused in our eccentric form of city government — weak mayor, weak council, weak city manager — City Hall is especially unable to defend itself against the well-wired well-heeled special seeker. Then add to the mix the Corps of Engineers, an agency whose entire budget is dependent on special seekers on a national scale. You have the perfect storm of fecklessness.
Imagine this in the private sector. Somebody comes back from vacation and says, “I think it would be cool to have a kayak park in Dallas, Texas.” Does a private entity go spend $4 million on that basis?
In the private sector, if it turns out the $4 million fake rapids is capable of swallowing Cub Scout troops without burping, does the private sector leave it out there and put up a sign, “Hazard Ahead”?
In the private sector, the staff rushes into a board meeting and says, “Give us $5 million to fix the scouterator right now, or the whole company will be killed.” Turns out that was never true. Do the staff and the board shrug and forget about it, everybody stays in place, and the scouterator just gurgles on forever?
At some point later this summer the stupid underwater fake kayak rapids will emerge from the flood waters drenched in mud and debris. The annual clean-up cost for the whole thing will be something on the order of half a million bucks. Another year will pass. And once again, I will make my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, grab my bug spray, put on my pith helmet and head down to the bottoms. You shall have my report.