Making WAVES: Permits for whitewater park to be sought soon; features might be ready next year —

Making WAVES: Permits for whitewater park to be sought soon; features might be ready next year

Richard Ripley, Spokane Journal of Business, Sept 25, 2008
Making WAVES: Permits for whitewater park to be sought soon; features might be ready next year

White-water structures planned in the Spokane River, such as one in Missoula in the photo, will create standing waves at many different flow levels. —Photo and illustration courtesy of Recreation Engineering & Planning Inc.

The city of Spokane will submit applications late this month or early next month for permits that must be issued before construction can begin on a proposed white-water park on the Spokane River, says Steve Faust, executive director of the Spokane nonprofit organization Friends of the Falls.

The project can’t be built until the annual spring runoff subsides next year, and it will have to be completed before fall rains raise the river to unacceptable levels for work to occur, says Faust, who’s also a Spokane business lawyer. He says that because of those factors, a window of opportunity for construction activity in the river generally falls between early July and the second week of September.

“You’ve got to direct the water from one-half of the channel to the other half” with a coffer dam during construction, then repeat that process to do work in the other half of the river, he says. It’s estimated that construction would take three to four weeks, and the organization hopes it’s completed by October next year.

Friends of the Falls works to preserve Spokane Falls and the Spokane River gorge in downtown Spokane and favors completion of a Gorge Park to connect downtown’s Riverfront Park to scenic greenbelt areas downriver.

The white-water project is expected to cost just over $1 million, and funds for it already have been raised, Faust says. He says Friends of the Falls has obtained a $400,000 grant from the Washington Legislature and has raised an additional $200,000 through its own efforts, and the city has obtained a $500,000 grant from a state wildlife and recreation program.

The white-water park would center around a pair of subsurface structures that would be built in the river immediately downstream from the Sandifur Bridge, which is near High Bridge Park, and together would stretch about two-thirds of the way across the river, Faust says. He says the project also would include construction of restrooms and a parking area near the south end of the Sandifur Bridge.

The in-river structures would create standing waves, in which skilled kayakers can “hover” in place until they choose to move through, Faust says.

“The wave kind of spits you out,” he says. “They know how to use that momentum to do all kinds of tricks. They can do 360-degree flips, and they can do spins.

“You’ll see them drive up, park, take their boats off their cars, carry their boats and walk 200 yards to the water, and get in,” says Faust, who has watched kayakers at play in a white-water structure built in downtown Missoula, Mont., in the Clark Fork River. “It’s called ‘park and play.’ It changes the dynamics of the sport” in that such activity is much different from ferrying vehicles between put-in and pull-out points and floating a stretch of river, he says.

In other cities that have developed white-water features, kayakers take turns when using the standing waves, Faust says. “You should be able to have several boats in there at a time,” he says. He adds that surfers and other water-sports enthusiasts also use the standing waves, and onlookers often gather to watch.

One goal of the Spokane project is to attract more people to the area near High Bridge Park, where police calls sometimes are numerous, Faust says.

“This is just one of the strategies that you use to make this area more attractive and increase appropriate use,” he says.

The two structures would be built with boulders grouted in place with concrete, Faust says. They would lay end to end in a north-south alignment stretching much of the way across a big pool just downstream from the Sandifur Bridge, although one would be larger than the other. Each U-shaped rock structure would be lower in the center of the U, with the bottom of the U laying upsteam from the rest of the structure.

“The effect is that the water is being channeled to the middle of that structure,” he says. “The other thing that people don’t understand about the white-water structures is that they are meant to be wet all year-round.”

The bigger of the two structures will create a standing wave across a broad range of flows and usually still will produce a wave in mid-June after annual runoff subsides, Faust says. The smaller structure will produce a standing wave during low flows.

Nontraditional sports such as kayaking in man-made urban standing waves are growing rapidly in popularity, and some cities now host festivals devoted to mixes of alternative sports such as rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, trail running, and mountain biking, Faust says.

“Spokane could do a major event centered in High Bridge Park that would include a variety of sports,” he says. “In Vail, Colo., they have an event called the Teva Mountain Games.

“It’s five days and highlights a single sport each day. We’d have cheaper hotel rooms and more accessible” venues than Vail, including a set of mountain bike trails under development here at Camp Sekani; rock climbing at Minnehaha Rocks, the former Walk in the Wild Zoo, and Deep Creek; and single-track dirt-trail bike riding in a number of locations, he says.

The permits that are being sought include a hydraulic-project permit from the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW); and water-quality and flood plain-development permits from the state Department of Ecology. Also needed are a conditional-use permit from the city of Spokane under its shoreline regulations; a state Environmental Policy Act permit; and a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Faust says.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife says one of the best spawning areas for trout in the Spokane River near the project site lies between the Sandifur Bridge and Lower Spokane Falls, he says.

“The big concern that WDFW has is that the trout and the other fish that spawn up there need to be able to get up and down the river,” Faust says. In the original design, the white-water structures would have extended completely across the river, but their size was scaled back to allow fish to move up and down river more easily, and a channel in the river along its north bank would be left as it is for fish passage, he says.

Historical river flows have been studied to meet the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s goal of making sure the project is designed for flows that the Spokane River exceeds 95 percent of the time, Faust says. An analysis of cultural resources is being conducted, and an archeological unit of the Spokane Tribe of Indians is evaluating archeological information, he says.

Recreation Engineering & Planning, of Boulder, Colo., is working on the design of the white-water structures and also on such issues as careful placement of native rocks to keep altered river flows from undercutting the Spokane River’s banks, Faust says.

WDFW says it’s still looking at questions related to potential scouring of the river banks and to fish passage in the river north of the white-water structures.

Says, Faust, “We’re in an iterative process with the agencies—asking, “How does this look to you?”—before we’re going to apply for the permits.” Later, a contractor will be hired to do the construction work.

In the project, some willow trees will be removed from the river to enhance safety, old cables and guides in the river also will be removed, and old bridge piers will be knocked down to grade so they don’t cause surging flows or other potential safety hazards, he says.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Falls and the city have tried to check out alleged reports by a Montana state employee that problems occurred during construction of the white-water structure in Missoula, but have been unable to verify those reports, Faust says. He says that structure also was designed by Recreation Engineering & Planning, but the allegations involved a contractor and not the designer.

When the allegations were brought up in a recent public meeting here, Faust says that Barry Russell, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said, “‘This is our project. The regulatory agencies are not going to let us do it in an inappropriate way, and we’re not going to do it in an inappropriate way.’”

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