City Hall

City to Decide on Ripping out Whitewater Feature or Fixing It. Let Her Rip.

Do you know what a carbuncle is? It’s something awful, swollen, painful and pus-filled under the skin. Oh, sorry. But I think of the fake kayak rapids that the city built five years ago in the Trinity River – closed for use the same week it opened because it’s too dangerously screwed up — as a carbuncle on the river.

Dallas District 14 city council member Philip Kingston told me yesterday he has been informed the city manager will go to the council Oct. 20 with estimates for the cost of repair or removal.

I don’t think you repair a carbuncle. I don’t believe there is any such thing as a better carbuncle. But let’s talk about it.

The problem from the beginning with the so-called “whitewater feature,” designed to be a Colorado-style kayak park, is that it was an idiotic concept poorly executed by morons.

Maybe the force, depth and flow of the Trinity River could have been harnessed somehow to make it mimic a mountain stream, but not by dropping enormous dinosaur turds of concrete into the middle of it.

Instead of a frolicsome rapids with wholesome chills and spills for kayakers, the city produced a thing I call the Cub Scout-erator: At certain levels of water-flow in the river, it is capable of swallowing and grinding up entire cub scout troops in one belching gulp, spitting them and their aluminum canoes out the other end as canned tuna.

It’s a pretty bad goof in and of itself, and that’s exactly what it has looked like these last five years every time I have gone down there to check — a series of random mounds of concrete sitting out there in the middle of the river. A total stranger stumbling upon it without any idea what it was could only cross himself and whisper, “Oh, my goodness, something terrible must have happened.”

But when I heard they were finally going to tell the council what it will cost to repair or remove it, alarm bells went off in my head immediately. You and I, Dear Taxpayer, already have invested something between $4 million and $5 million in this monstrosity. Didn’t know you bought a $5 million Cub Scout-erator? Oh, believe me. You bought and paid for it.
It’s very expensive, as I now know, to have someone come dump huge ugly loads of concrete into a river. Apparently the amount of human expertise required is unimaginable. It’s too bad elephants can’t be trained to excrete concrete or it might have been done for less.

The problem now is that the city’s engineering staff, mainly responsible for the execution of this atrocity, feels that it must defend its honor by refusing to admit that it’s an atrocity. If past pronouncements are any indication, they’re going to come to the council in October with a better-carbuncle plan, arguing that fixing the carbuncle would be far cheaper than removing it.

I have a tendency – I admit it – to get lost in the sheer stupidity of the thing itself. Why do you think I keep going down there? I could probably stand there for a week just spitting and shaking my fist at it, which, I also admit, may not be entirely productive.

So when I heard from Kingston yesterday that the city manager finally is about to come up with some estimates for repair or removal, I called a wiser, cooler head and asked him to talk me off my ledge.

As proprietor of Trinity River Expeditions, Charles Allen is the longest established canoe and kayak guide on the river in North Texas (but rather than make a free ad of this, I should also say you can look at Trinity River Kayak Rentals, Fort Worth Kayak and Canoe Rental and others). I call Allen for his depth of knowledge about the river itself more than about canoeing or kayaking.

I asked him what the greatest value would be of simply removing the whitewater feature, rather than fixing it – well, other than the un-ground-up cub scouts. To my surprise, he didn’t really wind up talking about canoeing or kayaking at all, even though I know getting rid of it would allow longer safer river trips for his clients.

He talked about flood safety for the whole city.

The river, where it runs through downtown, is in a deep straight ditch dug more than a half-century ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, called a floodway. The floodway, Allen said, “lets flood waters and silt and treated wastewater and everything else that we don’t want to stay here continue on downstream.

“That’s why the floodway was designed the way it was, to be fairly efficient at removing all of those things we don’t want to stay around, especially floodwater.”

Thousands of tons of silt and entire logjams of fallen trees pass through the floodway during our twice-a-year flood seasons, with a tendency to keep clogging it up. The less fast it flows, the more it clogs.

The more it is clogged up, the less ability the floodway has to convey floodwaters through downtown, raising the chances the floodwaters will jump up out of the floodway and come flooding into downtown.

“In the '90s and early 2000s the river channel from I-30 down to where the whitewater site is now at the DART trestle was dredged at least twice,” Allen told me.

“I think they had to come back and do some more dredging after that. It was at least two, maybe three times they dredged the channel for millions of dollars.”

In addition to its being an elephant doo-doo pile anyway, the place where they chose to put the whitewater thing into the river is right at the downstream or bottom end of the floodway, so it acts kind of like a plug in a bathtub drain, at least partially occluding the flow of water in the floodway.

“The whitewater site,” Allen told me, “is a five-feet-tall dam. By putting it in there, they have been silting in that same channel.”

The effect of that dam, he said, is to slow the water down and pile it up into something like a lake at the bottom of the floodway, just above the whitewater feature.

“You slow the water down,” he said, “and turn the lower part of it into something closer to a lake than it should be. The faster water hits the slower water. The silt drops, and the channel starts silting in.”

His observation of the river leads him to believe that is exactly what we have been doing to the floodway in the five years since the whitewater thing was dumped into the river.

“You know, the floodway has worked so well for so long that we take a lot of things about it for granted. We think it will work forever, that it’s great and that we’ve got plenty of extra capacity for whatever happens.

“It’s not true,” he said. “We can incrementally remove our flood protection, which is kind of what we’ve been doing.”

He’s not saying the whitewater thing alone will cause downtown to flood. But Allen looks up and down the river and sees instances where we have placed things into the floodway without taking anything out – and without thinking.

“You keep adding stuff like the big circular off-ramp at Sylvan. You keep adding these things. You add the new Calatrava bridge with its piers. The old bridge is still there.

“We’re not taking things out of the floodway. We’re adding incrementally. Adding them, adding them, adding them. We can flood Dallas, maybe not next year, but eventually.”

As the effects of climate change frown down on us from rain-choked skies, we are still governed here by an aging elite that doesn’t even believe in climate change, that sees every new construction project as a new source of wealth without even a rudimentary effort at toting up the costs, the downside.

In particular, the only thing you’ve heard about flood safety from City Hall is that you shouldn’t worry your little head about it. OK, well here’s a thought experiment for them.

When the Corps of Engineers is under pressure from local politicians and land speculators to build a new lake or levee system, the Corps is able to come up with splendid algorithms to justify the project: Exactly this many wheelbarrow loads of dirt removed and this many cubic yards of concrete added will produce – down to the penny – this many millions of dollars in property value newly protected from flood damage.

It’s always a great deal. The project only costs local taxpayers $14.2 gadzillion, but it will protect $20.16 gadzillion worth of property. What a steal!
So let’s do this, when the city manager comes back with his better-carbuncle plan. Why don’t we ask the Corps to dust off some of those wonderful algorithms they did back in the mid-1990s to justify the entire rebuilding of the levee system through Dallas?

And let’s ask them to tell us, down to the penny, the cost in flood danger of keeping the carbuncle in place. By the way, the only fixes that have been discussed all involve making the carbuncle much bigger than it is already.

They ought to be able to tell us down to the penny: Exactly this many wheelbarrow loads of dirt and this many cubic yards of concrete dumped back into the river five years ago have exposed property worth such-and-such to flood damage that would not have been exposed had the concrete dinosaur turd thing not been there.

And I know already. They won’t tell us, because City Hall is their partner on the whole Trinity River Project, and the Corps won’t say anything that would make their partner really mad at them. They’ll say their dog ate their algorithms.

But at least it would be nice to hear the discussion. We could say, “Hey, Corps, how big is your dog? By any chance was your dog around the day they built that thing?”