City Hall

If You’re City Hall and You Get Caught, Get the Law Changed. You’re That Cool.

Charles Allen thinks the city should clean up the mess it created with its so-called "Trinity Standing Wave."
Charles Allen thinks the city should clean up the mess it created with its so-called "Trinity Standing Wave." Brandon Thibodeaux
Pretend you’re some private company. You dump an enormous load of concrete into the Trinity River creating an obstruction so massive that boats can no longer even get up and down the river. Say you get caught. Don’t you think you’d have to fix it? Or go to the pen? Or something?

So if you want an example of why people resent and mistrust government, take a look at what Dallas City Hall is trying to do with the botched concrete kayak park the city stuck in the river years ago at a cost to taxpayers at the time of somewhere between $4 and $5 million. Even though the city admits the whole thing is now worthless and even though they admit it screws up the river, City Hall wants to use its clout as a government entity to get out of doing anything.

Just leave it. Leave the wreckage where it sits – a grotesque pollution, an ugly desecration of the river. Leave it there. Forget it. Let the river be screwed up forever.

Why? Because City Hall thinks it can get away with it. Rather than even try to clean up the mess it created – even try — the city instead is asking a fellow branch of government, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to let it off.

The city wants the Corps to use its own powerful federal government regulation-writing pencil to simply cross out the regulations that would require anybody else on earth to restore the river to its original condition.

Nobody knows yet that the Corps will agree. Wednesday in a secret closed-door session, City Attorney Larry Casto showed the City Council a letter (copy below) he had already sent to the Corps asking for a pass on remediating the “whitewater feature,” or "Standing Wave," as it is called, a weird name for a weird thing. In his letter, Casto argues that nobody really uses the river that much at that particular point anyway. He says cleaning up the river – fixing the city’s mistake — might cost $2 to $8 million.

Just between us chickens, it sounds to me like the city is seriously misrepresenting those costs to the Corps. In truth, the city is sitting on another fix – a much cheaper way to do it — that would restore two-way traffic on the river for less than half a million. More on that in a minute.

Then again, half a million, eight million, it all seems like real money to us. The more interesting point is that the city, which is in the business of making everybody else toe the line, wants a pass – wants the regulations changed – because it doesn’t want to spend the money required to undo the damage that the city admits it did in the first place.

You and I might figure it this way: If you put $4 million worth of bags of concrete into a river on the chance that it will work, but it doesn’t work, then chances are it will cost somewhere in the millions to get your concrete back out of the river, especially after it hardens. Therefore, you might need to think things over carefully before taking the plunge. Unless you’re the city. Then who gives a shit?

The so-called whitewater feature (try brown) is a big ugly mass of concrete and rebar plopped into the river just downstream or south of downtown next to the DART trestle on the west bank of the river. The thought was that the big brown plop would cause waves in which kayakers would be able to cavort.

The Corps of Engineers has legal dominion over navigable waterways. Ancient federal law, reinforced in this case by specific language in the permission granted by the Corps to build the thing, stipulates that boats have to be able to navigate both up and down the river at that point, because that’s how it was before the thing was built.

Obviously canoes full of families could not navigate over the plop as they had forever at that point, nor could motorized fishing boats, so the city built what it called a bypass on the eastern bank of the river next to the plop.

The first day the completed plop was open in 2011, a couple in a canoe tried to go down the bypass and damn near lost their lives. Far from the tranquil side-channel it was intended to be, the bypass operates more like a gigantic kitchen garbage disposal. I call it the Dallas City Hall Cub-Scout-Erator.

The Corps has been after the city to do something about it for more than a year. And especially since the city now admits it was a mistake – Casto even says as much in this latest letter to the Corps — the obvious the thing to do is say sorry and get it the hell out of there.

Instead, the Casto letter asks the Corps to declare the Trinity to be no longer by law a navigable river in Dallas. See how that works? If it’s no longer legally a navigable river, then you can go ahead and chunk as much concrete in there as you like, because, as I said before, who cares?

To save itself what is probably less than 10 percent of what it spent building the thing, then, the city proposes to just give up on the river as a recreational resource throughout its entire reach through the city. Appalling.

In addition to money, this all gets caught up in City Hall politics. The whitewater feature was the brainchild and plaything of the same set of people who want to build a high-speed limited access toll road next to the river. In fact they thought the rest of us would let them have their toll road if they gave us a kayak park. Now it’s a lot about ego.

Yesterday I asked City Council member Lee Kleinman, who always reminds people he’s a conservative, why the conservative responsible position wouldn’t be taking responsibility for the mistake and making it right. I thought that’s what conservatives are supposed to do.

click to enlarge
The $4 to $5 million "whitewater feature," in addition to being a hazard to navigation of the river, is now a silt-encrusted occasional homeless camp.
Jim Schutze
“I just don't want to spend any more money on it,” he wrote back. “That's the conservative view.

“Note that the river is not navigable at several other locations including the Dallas Water Utilities intake dam at California Crossing. The navigability requirement is a vestige of the days when there were efforts to open the river to barge traffic from Dallas to Houston.

“By the way, I was against the Standing Wave when I was on the Park Board. But ‘blowing it up’ or ‘tearing it out’ is merely a childish response to frustration. We have plenty of more important things to spend money on.”

And here I thought blowing it up and tearing it out would be the adult response.

I talked yesterday with Charles Allen, proprietor of Trinity River Expeditions, a canoe outfitting company on the river. He pointed out that the river above the whitewater feature is a heavily engineered flood relief channel designed to move as much flood water out of downtown as fast as possible:

“A navigable river is a free-flowing river,” Allen said. "It’s unobstructed. Over the last couple of years, it should have been obvious to anybody that we need floodwaters to move freely away from Dallas.

“It’s not so much about barges and steamboats and stuff like that, it’s important for us that it keeps us from obstructing a river that floods.”

City Council member Philip Kingston is the one who told me there’s a cheaper option in the works. He said he heard it from Assistant City Manager Mark McDaniel.

Kingston told me: “McDaniel in July said, ‘We think we’ve got a new program. We’re vetting it. It might be a cheaper removal option. We’re going to brief it to Park Board in August.’

“So in August I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘Oh, a slight delay. We’ll brief it in September.’ So in September I said, ‘Where is it?’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s going to take us until November to get it out the door. Then I promise it for a January briefing.’ And now we see them running around trying to save the damn water feature.

“By the way,” Kingston said, “the alternate removal technique is really cool. It’s to get a couple pieces of yellow iron (big earth-moving equipment) on either side of the channel and then just drag that stuff down the river until it no longer impedes the flow. It’s supposed to cost about $400,000.”

City Council member Scott Griggs told me he, too, is opposed to downgrading the legal classification of the river because he fears that would only give City Hall permission to “place other large concrete objects between the levees.”

For Charles Allen, the question in the end is one of morality and honor: “It was hard for me to learn this, but you make a mistake, you have to say, ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake. I’ll do whatever I have to do to make it right.’”

Unless you happen to be the local government.

Dallas City Attorney Letter White Water by Schutze on Scribd

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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