Drowning the Whistleblower on the Doomed Trinity River Wave

Who else but Dallas City Hall could take a simple thing like kayaking and turn it into snaggle-clawed sulfurous lawsuit hell? But that's what I smell ahead for the Dallas Wave, the fake whitewater thing the city has created in the Trinity River.

For two weeks I have been trying to get someone at City Hall to tell me who is responsible for the unbelievably screwed-up man-made kayaking rapids in the river. It was supposed to be a whitewater playground for kayakers.

On May 11 the city opened a paddling trail down the river to the wave, but on the same day they barred public access to the wave, because it was that dangerous. Some canoeists and kayakers said it was even capable of killing people.

And then the money. The thing started out at a planned cost of $1.5 million. The city now has invested more than $4 million. The park board voted last week to spend another $76,000 to pay an engineering firm to find out what's wrong with it. Then I assume we'll have to pay some more to fix it.

So who designed it?

The Dallas Wave was meant to create turbulence or "whitewater" for the amusement of certain kayakers called play-boaters. Play-boaters are kayakers who use very short duck-billed kayaks to play around in a rapids. They don't go up and down the river. They just stay in the rapids and flip themselves upside down and stuff.

Why has Dallas spent $4 million and counting for the amusement of people in duck-billed kayaks? Sorry, you might as well ask me if God can make a rock too big for Him to roll.

I do know this. A lot of people now want to know why the thing is such a wreck and a failure. City council member Angela Hunt recently sent a memo to City Manager Mary Suhm asking, "Why aren't the original engineering, design and construction firms required to fund not only the cost of analyzing the problems they apparently caused but also fixing them?"

But here is where things begin getting very duck-billed and convoluted. I have contacted the people who were the alleged designers, a company in Boulder, Colorado, called Recreation Engineering and Planning, twice — once last April and again last week. Last week I asked REP if the thing that is in the Trinity River now is what they designed.

Gary Lacy, whose title at REP is chief engineer, told me in an email: "The design was a team approach with various civil, structural, and hydraulic designers as well as planners and landscape architects, local and out of state."

I don't know what that means. Out of what state? I called him, but he wouldn't take my call, so I emailed him back and said I didn't understand his answer. "Is this your design or not?" I asked.

No response. Radio silence.

Last April, in a conference call with the staff of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, I asked who had designed the Dallas Wave. John Reynolds, the city's project manager for the wave, said, "It was designed by a water park consulting firm out of Boulder, Colorado."

We established we were talking about REP, headed by Gary Lacy. I asked: "That design that I'm looking at is what he drew?"

Reynolds said, "That is correct."

But at about the same time, I also interviewed Shane Sigle, the engineer at REP who did the work on the Dallas Wave. I asked Sigle why there was such a difference between the Dallas Wave, an ugly massing of concrete and wire that looks like the back end of a sewage treatment plant, and the beautiful projects I saw on REP's web page, built with boulders and rocks to look like natural rapids and waterfalls.

"You know," Sigle said, "that's a question I was asking also. That's not something that we had control over."

I said: "That wasn't your deal then. You didn't get to choose the materials."

"That's right," he said. "We did not get to choose the materials. We were just responsible for the geometry and the slopes and the width and those types of things."

Aha! When I listened again to that April interview last week, I began to get the picture and see the problem. The city hired these guys in Boulder who have a national reputation for designing superb beautiful water parks in rivers. But they didn't let them fully design our project.

The city took the math from them, the geometry. And then the city, using its own engineers or a contractor, built the thing. In the process, the finished project veered significantly from the original concept, which I assume didn't include killing people.

Now what we have is a mess that can't be used, from which the public is barred, at a cost already four times the original estimate, with the cost of litigation about to be added to the tab. And nobody is sure who gets the blame for the final outcome — the Colorado people, the city, the construction contractor, somebody else? Everybody is probably girding their loins for litigation, so nobody can afford to speak plain English when you ask them a question.

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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