City Dawdling Leaves Trinity Canoeists Up Shit Creek

This is for the paddlers. Not for me. No more ranting by me, no more calling people stupid. Even if they are. We are all on our knees here, pleading. All around me are paddlers — canoe paddlers, kayak paddlers. We're pilgrims, walking on our knees to City Hall with canoe paddles in one hand, the other upraised in supplication.

We are begging, dear, dear, beloved and beautiful city staff persons: Please, will you please just do something about the mess you've made of our river with your so-called "white-water feature" on the Trinity River just below Corinth Street in southern Dallas.

You can't just leave it like that, wrecked and useless, like a dead body in the lobby. It's inhuman somehow — a kind of atrocity that just gets worse the longer it sits there.

A year ago I reported here that the $4 million fake rapids that the city built in the Trinity was a disaster. Somehow they got the design wrong. Way wrong. Instead of a fun water park, the thing they built turned out to be more like a giant wood-chipper for canoes.

It was the Dallas canoe and kayak In-Sink-Erator, capable of gobbling up entire families and their big aluminum canoes in one bite, with nary a floating Cub Scouts cap left behind to mark the spot. It was awful. Terrifying. A nightmare.

The day they held the dedication ceremony, the city closed the white-water feature to boaters — a very good idea at the time. But there was also much talk of modifying it somehow to reduce its propensity for devouring families.

In the year that has passed, however, the city has done absolutely nothing to fix it. They haven't touched it. Instead, the city has attempted to wall off that entire portion of the river like a nuclear waste spill.

Charles Allen of Trinity River Expeditions, a commercial canoe outfitter, told me again last week that he has been unable to get the city to unlock the gate to the parking lot that provides access to the river at that point. They won't let him within a quarter mile of the river there.

Allen doesn't want to launch families in canoes to ship them through the In-Sink-Erator. Unlike some people, he's not an idiot ... I mean misguided. He wants to put canoes in the river downstream from the In-Sink-Erator where they won't be devoured. But he needs to be able to drive down to the river with his canoes to put them in below the In-Sink-Erator. Not only will the city not let him in, they have threatened him with arrest.

In the past when I asked the city about it, they cited a construction project on a city walking trail nearby. I went down there and looked. Bullshit. I'm sorry. I meant, poppycock! The construction project was way the hell and gone from where Allen would have been launching canoes. And anyway, that project was completed months ago as far as any real heavy construction activity is concerned. But he still can't get in.

I spoke last week with Eric Neilsen of the Dallas Downriver Club, and he told me the city had barred his organization from even going down to the white-water site to test the water for contaminants. The state has always rated water in the river at that point unsafe for human contact. Neilsen's outfit wants to find out how unsafe.

"They said because of the construction site we had to have hard hats and vests and all this bullshit just to go down there," Neilsen told me. When his group agreed, the city found other forms of authorization they needed to apply for. He told me last week the group technically now possesses all of the authorizations the city has required but still hasn't been able to get in to do the testing without threat of arrest.

And what about this question? Why would you arrest a guy for testing the water? Why would you arrest somebody else for launching canoes? Are you kidding? People want to float down the river at that point through the Great Trinity Forest so they can go bird-watching and stuff. And you're telling me the city's going to sic the gendarmes on them? That's just plain ... it's totally ... I don't even know what to call it.

No, wait. Wait. I promised the paddlers when I spoke to them last week that I would not go off on a rant and start alienating people. And I never meant to alienate anybody. I always assumed if somebody was stupid and you helped them understand that they were stupid, they'd be grateful and ask you to lunch. I admit it's never worked out that way. So maybe the paddlers have a point.

Steve Ford is president of the North Texas River Runners, a kayaking group that has been at odds with canoe paddlers over the white-water feature. What canoeists may see as an In-Sink-Erator, Ford's group views as a hell of a lot of fun. But he said last week he's ready to bury the hatchet and seek some kind of sane compromise.

"I don't really know enough to know how the thing got botched," Ford told me. "I think what we have is a bunch of very well-meaning people pulling in several directions and not working it out."

So, by the way, what does the city say it's doing about it? Well, first of all, they don't say. Last week I asked Judy Schmidt, marketing director for the city's Trinity River Project; Willis Winters, assistant director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department; and Frank Librio, the city's director of public information, if they could tell me what's going on.

Schmidt and Winters did not acknowledge my request. Librio did. He said he'd check with the city attorney and get back with me the next day. But he never did.

Now, maybe you can sort of see how if I were not in my current meek and mild mode on my knees with my paddle in my hand and my other hand out-held begging, doing what the paddlers all asked me to do, I might throw out a couple of terms here, a couple of adjectives. But, no. I am not going to do that.

I will tell you that the last time the city staff briefed the City Council on this issue, they told them that the white water thing was "tied up in litigation." Last week I asked the city people to tell me what litigation. Tied up where in litigation? Is there a lawsuit against somebody? What do they mean, "tied up in litigation?"

I never got an answer from them, but I can tell you what the answer is. There is no litigation. No lawsuit. There is no one to sue, unless the staff wants to sue themselves, because the whole thing is entirely their own damn fault. No, cross out "damn," please. Instead I will say I believe they are faced with a dilemma of their own contrivance.

The white-water feature was designed by an outfit in Colorado that does these things around the country. I talked to them a year ago and asked them why all of their other projects in other states are made out of beautiful boulders but the one here is made out of concrete and steel rebar and looks like a big concrete In-Sink-Erator.

They said that was a good question. They said they had nothing to do with the final design. The city later admitted that the design was modified to save money. What that tells me is that the In-Sink-Erator problem came out of city staff's decision to take over the design. Why on earth a bunch of city employees in Dallas would think they knew how to design a white-water feature for kayaks I cannot for the life of me even imagine, and the only answer I can come up with is that they must be totally ... totally ... overconfident.

But this is where we are now. Ford, the kayak guy, told me his group thinks the white-water feature is very usable for their specific purposes, which involve maneuvering small specialized boats in turbulent waters. They wear protective clothing to guard against broken bones and water-borne disease.

I have said in the past I thought the people who do that kind of kayaking are a tiny minority of the many people who would like to navigate the river. Please allow me to semi-withdraw that observation at this point. No matter how few they may be, if the "play-boat" kayakers can use the white-water feature, then I think their presence on the river will help enhance the public image of the river as a cool natural resource, and that is all to the good.

I have also said in the past I think the city needs to fix the so-called "canoe bypass" portion of the feature, which is the Cub Scouts-cap-eating part. I guess that's just asking too much for the time being. Maybe the feeling is that we have extra Cub Scouts, so why not take a chance? Anyway, I would also like to withdraw my remarks to the effect that not fixing the canoe bypass is a case of sheer ... sheer ... sheer well-meaning but misguided thinking. Fine. Don't fix it.

Here is what all the various paddlers I talked to last week told me. They wish the city would simply provide an easy path around the white water feature for portaging (carrying) canoes. Unlock the gates. Stop threatening to arrest paddlers and birdwatchers. In other words, find a reasonable compromise. Get the river open again. And, possibly, every little chance they get, stop being such total douche-bag arrogant bureaucratic idiots.

Well, the paddlers didn't say that last one. That's me. Sorry, paddlers. I did my best.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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