Cowabungle: Corps of Engineers Says Don't Blame Them for That Effed-Up Dallas Wave
I have been dealing with both the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in recent weeks seeking answers to questions about the "Dallas Wave" or "Standing Wave" man-made rapids that the city has installed in the Trinity River just downriver from downtown. It was intended to be a recreational attraction for a certain type of very specialized kayaking.
Last May, at just about the time the city had planned to open the Dallas Wave to the public, the city instead barred the public from using it because of some serious flaws that made it too dangerous. A side channel, intended to function as a safe passage for canoeists and other boaters, turned out to be too turbulent.
The thing also has soared in cost, from an original price of $1.5 million quoted to the city council by city staff at the outset several years ago to an amount of almost $4.3 million now, and that is before the cost of fixing the thing so it won't kill canoeists.
Some Friends of Unfair Park have been wondering why the city has to pay these additional costs if the original design was bad. Why isn't the designer responsible? City council member Angela Hunt has raised the same question with City Manager Mary Suhm. See her memo below.
The design thing turns out to be a more complicated issue than you might think. I'm going to talk about it in my column in next week's paper. I'm not even sure the thing was built according to a design.
In the meantime, I also had a number of questions for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the "floodway" portion of the river between the levees. The wave is right at the bottom (downriver end) of the levee system.
Are we having fun yet?
I wondered how the Dallas Wave got a corps permit in the first place, especially without any environmental impact study, since it's really a dam. It backs up the river for several miles, permanently flooding riparian wildlife areas that normally have wet and dry cycles.
Turns out it was easy. The corps simply ruled that the wave fell under the rubric of something called a "nationwide permit 42 for recreational facilities," meaning the wave did not need its own separate permit or environmental impact study. All the corps had to do was write a letter of permission.
I still have issues with that deal. If you look at the language for this type of national permit, it says: "No activity may cause more than a minimal adverse effect on navigation."
Right now, the Dallas Wave is an absolute bar and block to navigation of the river. The city has banned all navigation through it and has threatened to arrest at least one outfitter who was merely carrying canoes past it.
Yesterday evening the corps sent me a complete list of written answers that were responsive to my questions. But I do smell a bit of a dodge in one answer.
I asked: "The city has barred all public access to the river from the standing wave site or its environs and is about to bar access at the Sylvan River boat ramp for more than a year. What are the terms and conditions by which the city may bar access to a navigable river?"
The corps answered: "The City of Dallas should be contacted regarding restricted access to the Trinity River, as this is outside the jurisdiction of the Corps of Engineers."
I just don't think so. The terms of the nationwide permit seem clear. Impediments to navigation fall under the purview of the corps.
Charles Allen, the outfitter whom the city is now threatening to arrest, is trying to find a way to encourage the corps to take a more activist part in this problem. His main point is that the city should not be allowed to screw up the river for the vast majority of people who use it recreationally -- canoers -- in order to provide some fun for a tiny minority of people who engage in what's called "playboat" kayaking.
Playboats are little snub-nosed kayaks designed for doing tricks in white water, as opposed to paddling down a long length of river. There's nothing wrong with playboating, and it's a solid good for the river for anybody at all to get out there and use it for any recreational purpose. The more recreational use that can be documented, the stiffer the environmental standards the state must enforce on the river.
But think about putting this shoe on another foot. What if some private developer owned some riverbank land and wanted to build a water park of some sort that involved construction out in the river. Do we think for a minute that a private party would be able to bar navigation of the river for a year or more and then, even when construction was complete, render navigation considerably more difficult for people who were not the developer's clients?
The corps speaks bureaucratese. Sometimes it takes a translator to know what they really mean. If you look at their Answer No. 4 below, they may actually be hinting that they intend to take a more active role in getting this thing right. Or not. It's kind of like consulting the Ouija Board sometimes.
And then there is the money and design question. I said it was complicated. But it's still a good question. This thing didn't build itself. Somehow it's always easier to paper over a problem with tax money than it would be with private money. Back to my question about a private developer: You can damn well bet that any private party that had this kind of problem with a design would be thinking hard about how to get his money back.
If you're a real glutton for wonk-punishment or if you just can't get to sleep, you can read the corps' full responses on the next page. If you do, you will see that I misunderstood the type of modeling that the city is paying for the wave. I thought it would be a digital model. It's a physical model. Fortunately, this is the first mistake I have ever made about anything in my entire life including even neckties.