The Trinity River's 'Standing Wave' Crashes into Reality

The "Standing Wave" is a $4 million-plus kayaking feature that the city recently installed in the Trinity River, and it's a failure. It's ugly. It's dangerous. It's an insult to the river.

The Wave, just south of downtown, was intended to be a whitewater play park, a place with rapids and waterfalls to entertain kayakers. Instead it's another sickening example of how the multibillion dollar Trinity River project is being handled—top-down, with no community involvement or consultation, driven entirely by people whose idea of a river experience is rafting down the Colorado with a guide, a chef and a guitarist.

The Wave itself is a series of concrete and rock mounds, plunked down in what used to be one of the most inviting stretches of the river, where the urban levee system ends and the river passes into the mysterious natural archways of the Great Trinity Forest.

In other parts of the country, man-made rapids have been built using natural boulders and river rocks. But ours was built mainly out of concrete. It looks like something you might see in a drainage ditch in a cheap subdivision.

The structure is two dams, both stretching all the way across the river, the second about 30 yards downstream from the first. There are broad openings in both dams on one side of the river, where all the kayaks are supposed to enter. On the other side of the river are narrow openings where chutes have been built to provide canoes with a bypass.

Canoeing isn't just the most popular recreational use of the Trinity River. For years it's been the only use, almost entirely because of the work of one man, Charles Allen, a commercial canoe outfitter who specializes in Trinity River canoe tours.

I called Allen last week. Construction on the Wave was completed recently. I wondered if he was happy with it.


We took a trip out there. Allen stood on the bank, practically in tears, showing me what would happen if the average family took a 16-foot canoe through the so-called bypasses. They would dump—capsize in a narrow, violently turbulent concrete and rock-walled channel. If the kids didn't have life jackets on, they might drown. If they did have life jackets on, they would still get pushed underwater in one of the most toxic rivers in the state.

Construction is finished and a grand opening is scheduled for May 7, but the city has banned navigation of the Wave until August. They cite concerns over nearby construction. I think they're worried about something else.

Allen showed me how the currents work in the bypasses. One powerful current slams you hard from the left. Six feet later an even more powerful current hits you from the right. Just when you're going through that wringer, the water drops steeply and tries to make your canoe stand on end. It's like canoeing a giant Cuisinart.


Allen said he doesn't feel safe just giving his clients a stern warning to avoid the mess altogether. "I'm afraid to send my clients down here in a canoe at all," he said, "because I'm afraid they'll get brave and try to make it through here anyway."

I brought this up last week with city officials. At first they said the bypasses had passed the necessary safety tests. John Reynolds, the city's project manager for the Wave, told me: "A canoe has negotiated both channels without any issues. He went through both channels in a full-sized canoe. He tested the entire wave structure, including the bypass channel."

But that was the guy from Colorado—who designed the thing. I looked him up. He's a two-time member of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak team, a two-time member of the U.S. Rafting team, and he "competes professionally as an adventure racer."

So if you're an adventure racer, you're cool.

I asked Reynolds: "Would you assure a relatively inexperienced canoer that he could take his family through that bypass?"

"And not get wet?" he said. "And not potentially...I'm not sure I can say every boat is going to come through upright."

I was about to ask if people should only do it if they have extra kids, but Reynolds' boss, Willis Winters, who was also on the phone, intervened.

"If they are inexperienced canoers with young family members," Winters said, "our recommendation would be to portage out above the bypass and get back in the water below."

Portage is a term familiar to people in Wisconsin, where the winters are long and the women are strong. Here in Dallas, on a 97-degree Saturday in July, it's a bitch. Beach the boat, get everybody out, pull all your stuff out, lug the stuff down the bank and around the Standing Wave, go back and lug the boat, refill it and drop it back in.

That's why people get brave. That, and beer.

Winters told me that the man who tested the canoe bypass, Shane Sigle of Recreation Engineering & Planning in Boulder, Colorado, did express "concerns" after paddling the canoe bypass.

"He made some recommendations," Winters said, "which were to put some concrete in the bottom of the channel to raise the gradient. We are having that priced by the contractor right now."

That doesn't exactly sound like a passing grade from the canoe tester. You pass, but you're going to have to rebuild the thing.

I called Sigle and asked him my favorite question: "Would you tell the middle-aged dad with his wife and two kids to take a big canoe through that bypass?"

"It's a very tricky question, as you know," he said, "and a very tricky subject."

Well, I didn't think so. But OK.

He said he and a number of "local boaters" in Dallas tested the canoe bypass channels at the Standing Wave extensively. He said his company then recommended that the city go back in and rebuild the bypass.

"We have proposed some modification to the city to tone it down and to make it easier and I guess what you would say more user-friendly."

I asked what specific changes his company had recommended.

"We have proposed lessening the drop, lessening the slope and straightening out the hydraulic jet."

Hydraulic jet. Scary term! That's his technical word for the Cuisinart current that Allen pointed out to me. It's water jetting out of the bottom of the narrow bypass chute.

Most people who go canoeing on the Trinity are prepared for a nice slow float on relatively flat water. They don't want or expect to go through hydraulic jets of any kind.

I also asked Sigle why the Standing Wave is so ugly. His company's web page shows these beautiful projects they've designed, like the Reno Whitewater Park on Nevada's Truckee River, built with gorgeous boulders and rocks. So why does ours look like an illegal dumping site?

He said his company was involved only in the hydraulic engineering of the Dallas project, not the architectural design. I asked Winters who the architect was. There was a landscape architect only for the shoreline features, he said. Like, the sidewalks.

That's what I thought. No architect. This is what we get for four million bucks?

That the Wave has to be re-engineered and rebuilt has not been presented to the park board or city council. All they know is that the Trinity Commons Foundation—the private socialite club promoting the overall Trinity River Project—has been flouncing around strewing rose petals and singing the praises of the Standing Wave, which they say is the first evidence of progress on the overall 20-year-old multibillion dollar Trinity River project.

But it's not progress. It's junk. It's a mess. If I weren't so angry, I might even cry.

On our trip, Allen pointed out that there are wonderful examples nearby of the right way to treat the river—River Legacy Park in Arlington, for example, which consists of lovely riverbank trails and benches.

But Dallas had to have bling. It's like those damn fake suspension bridges. It's wrong, and it's vulgar, and it doesn't work.

As Allen and I pulled out of the Standing Wave site in his van, he waxed nostalgic about the founding days of the Trinity River Project, back in the early 1990s, when Mayor Steve Bartlett put together a true community-based committee to design it. The committee included representatives from all walks and constituencies, including Allen.

"It was for real," he said. "They came up with consensus opinions."

But when Ron Kirk took office as mayor in 1995, he gutted the committee and turned everything over to the socialites.

We have some leadership in Dallas that's not very smart. But let me remind you of something more important: We have been blessed with a beautiful river. We need to stop trying to tell the river what to do, be quiet, and listen to the river's real voice. When it speaks to us, I assure you, it will not sound like Donald Trump.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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