Dallas City Council members, closeted in a closed-door session last Wednesday with lawyers from the city attorney’s staff, couldn’t believe their ears. Without any warning or preparation beforehand, the lawyers told the council that the council was up against a legal deadline only a few hours off, and that, if the deadline was not met, federal officials might virtually shut down the city.
This has to do with one of the stupidest, zaniest, least necessary and most mentally challenged projects the city has ever undertaken — and that’s saying something — a so-called “white water feature,” or fake rapids, in the Trinity River downstream from downtown. Opened to recreational paddlers on May 7, 2011, the white water feature was closed to navigation the same day when the first few paddlers complained they had almost been killed.
City attorneys told the council in an emergency executive session Wednesday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was only hours away from shutting down almost the entire drinking water system for Dallas if the council didn't immediately cough up $3 to $5 million to fix or (better idea) demolish the stupid white water feature. Some on the council didn't believe the lawyers, so thank goodness they balked at signing the check.
Council members Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs say now that some element of the threat was a bluff and that the most the Corps probably would have shut down was any additional goofy construction projects in the river bottom. "That would have been doing us a favor," Kingston said.
But some of the threat was genuine and the overall incident is evidence that some kind of mighty push is coming to a big shove between the city and the Corps over the moronic white water feature. This thing has been sitting in the middle of the river for almost five years, bollixing up what had been a popular canoe route, rendering the river impassable to fishermen in motorized flat-bottom jon boats and doing who knows what to the river itself by piling up silt on its upstream side.
Meanwhile city officials, the city’s contractors and officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been sitting by wagging fingers at each other when not taking desk-naps.
All of a sudden — bang! out of nowhere! — the lawyers lock the council up where the taxpayers can’t see them, shove a letter from the Corps in their faces and tell them if the council doesn’t agree to spend millions more on this already atrociously over-budget fiasco by 5 p.m. that day, the Corps is threatening to yank federal permits that could effectively shut down the city’s water supply.
Hey, there’s a way to run a railroad! Hurry! Give us $5 million bucks right now or everybody will have to move out of Dallas!
Some council members at the meeting asked to see the Corps of Engineers threat in writing. At first the lawyers said they didn’t think it was in writing. They said it was conveyed verbally. But some council members said no, c’mon, nobody conveys a threat like that as chit-chat. There has to be a letter.
So after a bit the lawyers came up with two letters (see below), the first dated December 15, the second dated January 5, warning Dallas that some affirmative action had to be taken by the end of business, January 20, or certain broad regional permits could be in jeopardy. Some council members in the meeting, the ones who get told things beforehand, said they had been told that it meant the city's water treatment plant might be shut down.
Kingston was convinced at the end of the day that was never true. But, again, the deadline was 5 p.m, January 20. The first that most of the council heard of it was noon, January 20. Quick! Quick! Give us five million bucks or they’ll shut off the water!
Good news: The council pushed back. They said go ahead and tell them we’ll tear it out or fix it, but we’re not handing you $5 million on five hours notice. At the end of the day the city sent a letter promising to do something (see below).
And frankly there are tons of blame all the way around on this particular caper. But pause briefly please, I hear you telling me, and explain to us again: What in the hell is a “white water feature,” and, no matter what the hell it is, what can it possibly have to do with the city’s entire drinking supply?
Oh, excellent question. Thought you’d never ask.
A white water feature is a pretend rapids made by human beings, a recreational facility of a type especially popular in Colorado. The most extreme of these parks are popular with a narrow sub-cult within the kayak world called “play-boaters,” named for weird-looking, short, snub-nosed, duck-billed kayaks capable of being paddled both up and down a rapids or whitewater shoal. There are about 30 of these people south of the Red River.
Some years ago the park portion of the Trinity River project, an ambitious plan to rebuild the entire riverfront through downtown Dallas, was turned over to Dallas socialites. Apparently the socialites glimpsed a man-made whitewater park over the rims of their martini glasses while semi-reclined on a canopied deck somewhere in Colorado and decided they wanted to bring one home. But they thought it would be better for the taxpayers to pay for it, because … money.
The original estimate given to the City Council more than five years ago was $1.5 million. When construction on the fake rapids was finished, the cost was more than $5 million.
But here is an important point in the Enough Blame Department. The city did not build the rapids as its consultants had designed it. I spoke to the consultants years ago and asked them why the whitewater parks they had done in Colorado were all made of beautiful big boulders, rocks and other natural materials, while the one here is a big gob of concrete. They said good question.
In fact, the final design and engineering of the mess we have now out in the middle of our river came from city staff engineers and construction supervisors, never named publicly, who are still on the payroll and, last I heard, are still building stuff like giant concrete highways through the Great Trinity Forest that they think are nature trails, sort of like nature from the window of a Greyhound bus maybe.
Wait. I heard that. What is wrong with the fake rapids, you want to know. Excellent point. Did you ever splash around as a kid in the gutters when it was raining? Then you know that if you obstruct swiftly moving water, squeeze it or try to stop it with your boot, the water becomes turbulent — jumps, splashes, tries to get around or over your boot.
Well, one side of the white water feature, supposedly a safe passage for families in canoes, is so turbulent under certain conditions that it acts more like an in-sink DisposAll in your kitchen: It actually plunges boats and people to the bottom of the river and then tries to suck them down there and not let them back up.
Terrible, you say. Terrible. Potentially insinkerating whole families. We can’t have that. But you still want to know what any of this could possibly have to do with the water supply? Would the unfortunate families cause some kind of pollution?
No, no, that’s not it, and this is where we come to the rest of the enough blame picture. Five years ago, after it was known what an idiotic disaster this thing was, I asked the Corps of Engineers how and why they had permitted it to be built. Didn’t they have to study it? It’s a 5-foot-high dam across a major river. Wasn’t there some kind of environmental review? I asked to see a copy of the permit.
Oh, they didn’t issue a permit, they told me. They said it fell within something called a “nationwide permit 42 for recreational facilities.” It was permissible without a specific permit, they said. All it needed was a “letter of permission” from the Corps, which they granted without any environmental study.
Back to the water supply. The Corps does not have a specific permit for the whitewater feature that it can pull. No such permit ever existed. Did city officials figure for the last five years that meant the Corps couldn’t make them do anything? Who knows?
But all of a sudden the Corps is desperately serious about making something happen. And it’s weird. The Corps, a gigantic public construction company run by the Congress, never acts this way with client cities. It kisses cities’ butts so it can get more work and not make local congressmen mad. The Corps’ emphatic behavior here this week was way outside their profile.
I compared notes with Charles Allen, proprietor of Trinity River Expeditions guide service, who is about the most knowledgeable Corps-watcher I know, and he agreed with me that it was very strange indeed for the Corps to go on the warpath against a major city out of concern for fishermen in jon boats.
He and I both wondered if what’s pushing this may not have more to do with the reported weaknesses in Lewisville Dam , the ongoing and so-far unsuccessful efforts of the Corps to partly drain Lewisville Lake so it can do repair work on the dam and years of concern about the safety of the levee system through downtown Dallas. All of that would add up to concern not about navigation but about a principle called “conveyance.”
Conveyance is the amount of water the Corps can pour into the river and through the levees from its lakes in the region without overtopping or tearing down the levees.
Allen has been telling me for years that the white water feature is piling up tons of silt on its upriver side. Is it enough to affect conveyance, and is that why the Corps is suddenly so jacked out of shape? I asked the Corps specifically about conveyance and whether it’s an issue with the white water feature.
They said, “We received a response from the city of Dallas on Wednesday. We are currently evaluating it.”
That’s what’s called neither a yes nor a no. I leave it at that. But what about the water supply?
The big permits that the Corps does hold over the city’s head, called 404 permits, could theoretically be construed to govern virtually the entire water supply of the city. And that’s the type of saber they are rattling. They don’t have a pea-shooter to aim at the white water feature alone, so they are bringing out bigger guns by threatening to yank the 404 permits, or so the lawyers told the council last Wednesday.
The numbers thrown out by the lawyers were $5 million to fix it, $3 million to tear it out. Yes, and then, almost forgot, the city told the Corps they were going to sue the designers, so that pretty much rounds out the finger-pointing into a perfect circle. I mean, I think that’s everybody.
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No, wait, what about the socialites? Well, gosh, I doubt they even remember this thing. They’ve probably moved on to hover-board-tag parties by now, with athletic servants racing around catching people when they fall.
I'm coming back to this with more detail on the threat Monday. But look at it this way: Either the city's lawyers were bluffing and the Corps was never going to effectively close down a major American city, or it's all true and the Corps really was going to shut down a major American city. But for what? For that stooopid white water feature. Either way, what a way to go, eh? Guess we better all start looking for jobs in Houston.