Whitewater Parks – Considerations and Case Studies.

American Whitewater -Whitewater Parks Policy Statement Developed May 2007

The Mission of American Whitewater is “to conserve and restore America’s whitewater resources and to enhance opportunities to enjoy them safely.” To that end, American Whitewater does not actively participate in whitewater park projects that are outside of existing river channels. The new generation of closed system pump parks are outside the scope of American Whitewaters’ mission.

In channel whitewater parks are highly diverse in their potential benefits and potential impacts to rivers and their enjoyment. American Whitewater is an organization focused on protecting and restoring rivers, and therefore we have a direct interest in whitewater parks that will either significantly impact a river or that will restore significant ecological or social values to an impaired river. We feel that any modifications to an impaired river channel should be made with the utmost caution, care, and commitment. It is our policy that natural un-modified river channels should not be modified for the creation of whitewater parks. Whitewater parks exist in a complex and dynamic context of river management, and we consider proposed parks in this context on a case by case basis. The following resources present the considerations that we believe should be part of any whitewater park design and construction process. The first resource is a detailed description of the considerations, followed by a simple flow chart based on the same considerations, and lastly we offer several case studies of whitewater parks that highlight specific considerations.

Considerations in Designing and Constructing Whitewater Parks or Features
ConsiderationPotential ImpactNo Effect LikelyPotential Benefit
Instream flowsDiversion of water to off-channel or features that results in a loss of stream flow.No changes to instream flowFlow protection through securing a Recreational In Channel Diversion if in Colorado, or flow provisions from dams to meet recreational demand.
Riverbed conditionAlteration of a natural unmodified riverbed to a less natural state.Riverbed left unchanged, or features constructed in artificial, off-channel, or heavily modified stream channel.Changes to heavily impacted riverbeds may restore more natural and/or functional attributes to the bed and banks.
Public safetyChanges to streambed and banks create public hazards.Changes result in no new or unusual public safety hazards.Changes eliminate or reduce un-natural public safety hazards such as those associated with low-head dams, irrigation diversions, re-bar, and other debris.
Fish passageChanges to the streambed reduce or eliminate upstream and/or downstream passage of fish and other aquatic species.Changes have no effect on fish passageEnhanced fish passage through changes to streambed and banks that creates stream complexity and associated suitable velocities, or through recreational flow provisions that benefit passage.
Pre-existing and potential recreation valuesRecreational uses such as whitewater boating, calm-water boating, angling, swimming, or sightseeing are impacted or limited through park or feature constructionPre-existing uses are not impacted, no new uses are created.Recreational uses are enhanced through providing better public access, fish holding, whitewater features, spectator entertainment, swimming opportunities, etc. Both the number and quality of multiple uses are enhanced.
Design and constructions qualificationsUnqualified or unprofessional design or construction can lead to a failure to meet design objectives and can threaten both public use and the river’s integrity.Adequate design and construction should meet the design objectives.Superior design and construction can meet the most social and ecological objectives, and result in the best results over the short and long term.
EducationParks or features may present unintentional and undesirable public education on river safety and conservationParks or features may present no or neutral educational opportunities.Parks or features may offer high quality educational opportunities to both paddlers and spectators on river safety, river ecology, river conservation issues, and the watershed context.
AestheticsChanges may result in negative – ie less natural or unnatural – aesthetic impacts.Changes may have little or no effect on aesthetics.Changes may significantly improve aesthetics through restoring natural appearing riverbed and banks, with a vegetated native riparian area.
Operation and maintenance commitmentLack of long term commitment may result in feature failure and associated risks to public safety and ecological integrity.Adequate commitment should maintain project in original conditionSuperior commitment may result in site changes to enhance recreational and/or ecological benefits through adaptive management.
Riparian IntegrityChanges may replace a native and/or intact riparian area with non-natives or introduced rock or concrete.Changes may have no effect on riparian area.Changes may restore a native and intact riparian area to previously impacted sites.
River AccessChanges could limit public access for some or all river users.Changes may have no effect on public accessChanges may enhance public access for all river users.
PermittingParks or features should always be built under the appropriate permits.Parks or features should always be built under the appropriate permits.Parks or features should always be built under the appropriate permits.
Public InvolvementChanges made without public input could inadvertently and unnecessarily impact public uses or ecological values.Adequate public input should secure public approval or understanding for designSuperior public involvement may significantly enhance the number and extent of social and ecological values a park or feature can protect, create, or restore.


Case Studies:

Black River, NY: Original plans for alteration of the Black River were developed with inadequate consideration of impacts to pre-existing and potential recreational use, public input, and public access. Subsequent revisions to the process expanded the scope for alteration of an existing feature (Route 3 Wave) located on or near private lands to an entire reach of the Black River that currently has little recreational use, large recreational potential, public lands, and ecological restoration needs. Public input was sought and considered through several forums. No project has been built on the Black River yet.

Brennans Wave, Clark Fork River, MT: Brennan’s Wave was created through modifying an existing and operational irrigation diversion weir. The pre-existing weir was a public safety hazard containing sharp rocks, a keeper hydraulic, and rebar. There was no river access in downtown, Missoula, and the weir was unsightly. The creation of Brennan’s Wave eliminated a public safety hazard, improved public access, created new opportunities for whitewater and board surfing, and created viewing opportunities drawing attention to the river and its enjoyment. The feature does not mimic a natural river bed or banks in appearance, and does not feature educational information.

Arkansas River, CO: The Town of Salida has been awarded a Recreational In Channel Diversion (RICD), a legal water right held by the town, to protect flows in the river at the whitewater park’s in-channel features for the foreseeable future. In many western states water must be withdrawn from the channel, at a specific point of diversion to establish and maintain a water right. Colorado has a unique modern law that grants water rights to local governmental entities that place at least two whitewater features in the river by considering them Recreational in Channel Diversions. Thus, through building a whitewater park, Colorado municipalities have the unique ability to protect streamflows, without diverting it out of the channel.

Dickerson Whitewater Course, MD: Dickerson is an Olympic training site in the concrete outflow channel of a powerhouse along the Potomac River. Since it is off-channel and does not itself affect flows, the features have no direct impacts or benefits to the Potomac River

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Whitewater Park? “Whitewater Parks” are venues that have been partially or wholly augmented to facilitate whitewater recreation. Whitewater parks have been constructed at a wide range of sites including natural, modified, and artificial stream channels.

Why do People Create Whitewater Parks?: There are many reasons for the creation of whitewater parks, including: to create enthusiasm by attracting locals and visitors to the park, to create a venue for paddling competitions, to enhance the fish habitat in the river, to restore riparian vegetation along the banks of the river, to create a family-friendly and easily accessible creek/river-side park, to improve the aesthetics of the site, to provide local economic stimulation, and/or to improve general river safety by removing a hazard. The Iowa Whitewater Coalition has developed a video about river renewal through dam removal and whitewater feature construction. The video can be viewed online at: http://www.iowawhitewater.org/RORvideo.html

What kind of permits are needed for a whitewater park? Modifying a river channel for a whitewater park requires securing of necessary permits and approval from numerous state and federal agencies. Each agency has their own regulatory mandate for protecting public resources, which include water quality, fish, wildlife, and habitat. Agency jurisdiction is dependent on land ownership and issues associated with the park development. Most states have an agency that oversees state streams and rivers. The agency name varies by state but typically is referred to as the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This state agency requires a stream alteration permit prior to any bank or channel modifications. Below is a list of agencies that may or may not have jurisdiction. Consult a map and respective agency staff to determine if approval is needed.

What agencies are involved in whitewater parks? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,Army Corp of Engineers,National Marine Fisheries Service, and theU.S. Forest Service. State agencies in charge of Water Quality, Fish and Game, State Lands, and Local Zoning may also be involved.

What are some Design Resources? * John Anderson's McLaughlin Rincon and Gary Lacy's REP are two respected names in the field as is Scott Shipley's company http://s2odesign.net/. Riverrestoration.org has also completed numerous recent projects.

What about safety, liability, and insurance? Although injuries at parks throughout the world are rare, the potential for injury related liability must be addressed. Liability will be shared by requiring insurance from on-site operators, event organizers and public users. Generally, special events require special insurance while the river parks are covered under umbrella policies. Basic risk management and common sense site planning that is documented and applied throughout the process can easily mitigate the risks associated with most parks. Following the AW safety code when applicable greatly simplifies this process. Simple measures such as posting warning signs, clearly marking boundaries where boating is and is not permitted, and design measures that facilitate self-recovery are a few of the methods that have been employed by existing facilities to improve user safety. Removal of any in-stream hazards is recommend when feasible and will improve the safety of all park users. Minor site adaptation can further mitigate the risks of any remaining hazards. The increased presence of paddlers will also improve the overall safety for other river users. The use of any facility employing such measures should then be considered low risk.

How do you fund the design and construction of your whitewater park concept? Most existing whitewater parks were funded through county or city departments. Funding is often incorporated into the city or county tax structure. A few funding options are concessionaire fees, donations, capital funds, bonds, short-term borrowing, government grants and private foundation grants. For more detailed information on these options, link to funding.

Additional Resources