How to Start Planning a River Wave in your Hometown

 In Academy

Badfish was, in many ways, founded because of the whitewater park in Salida, Colorado. I started working on whitewater park design and planning in 1999 because as a kayaker getting ready to settle down in Salida, I wanted to be able to surf my kayak after work, or on my lunch break. When I built a wave that surfers started riding in Pueblo, CO in 2004, I knew my kayaking buddy Zack (who grew up surfing in San Diego) would be into trying it out. Those first few session in Pueblo, spurred Zack’s interest in shaping boards that would ride river waves better than the ocean shapes he had lying around. In 2009 I planned two new waves in Salida (the Office Wave and Scout Wave) and Zack shaped me a new river surfing specific SUP which went onto become the River Surfer…and the rest is history.  Here’s a video made by Rocky Mountain PBS chronicling the history of the FIBArk Festival. The segment we have queued up below tells the story of the Salida Whitewater Park, which might give you some inspiration for your community.

Over the past decade whitewater parks, with surfable waves, have popped up all over the Country…sometimes in some pretty surprising places. The Badfish team is littered with riders that got into river surfing and paddling through their local whitewater park. Team rider Hannah Ray J surfs in her local park in Charles City, Iowa and Shannon Thomas has created a surf scene in downtown Dayton, Ohio. The story of both parks are similar, local paddlers saw the potential for their local waterway and started working with local governments to see their dream of backyard surfing come true.

Before we go any further I want to offer a quick definition of Whitewater Parks. A whitewater park is a public river improvement project that creates whitewater features (like waves) and improves access to rivers for all types of river users.  Whitewater features are created through engineered structures that sit on the bed of the river and create hydraulic jumps (fancy term for a wave). Sometimes parks are built on the undisturbed bed of the river, but more often than not these days whitewater parks are located at the site of low head dams.  There are parks all over the country but Colorado is where the trend started and hosts almost 30 total whitewater parks. You can learn more about whitewater parks at the website for the firm I work for designing whitewater parks, Recreation Engineering and Planning. 

So could there be a whitewater park or river waves in your backyard? The answer is probably yes. Here are the basic steps to begin to think about starting a whitewater park in on your home river. In the 20 years I have been planning and designing parks every one of them was initiated by a passionate paddler with a vision for their community…someone just like you.

  • Identify a Site.  You’ll eventually need an expert to evaluate your site, but you can do the initial identification by looking for a site on a local river that might make sense. As I already said a local low head dam usually makes the best place to start. At a low head dam you have the gradient, or fall in the river, you need to create the energy for a wave. Plus dams suck and waves are great for everyone so you have multiple benefits and potential partners built in from the beginning. Also consider proximity to population centers and existing public improvements. The most successful parks are usually anchored to a public park or in a community. Parks that are isolated or way out of town are typically less appealing to decision makers.
  • Get Organized.  It takes money, permits and all manner of political maneuvering to get a whitewater park built. I always tell people that designing a whitewater park is 10% designing a whitewater park and 90% getting everyone to say you can design a whitewater park. So approach your local government with the idea with some basic level of organization in place. That doesn’t mean you have to start a non-profit group right away, maybe there is a local group already organized around rivers or parks in your community that would help bring your project forward. Whatever you do just make sure you approach your local decision makers with enough information that they don’t think you’re proposing a water slide.
  • Have a Community Focus. We know what you want. Its the same thing that I wanted back in 1999 when I started planning the Salida park…you want to surf. But here’s the thing, and in my experience its the number one thing paddlers and surfers miss when talking to decision makers about a whitewater park, rivers are public and valued resources with tons of regulations and interested parties. Rarely is anyone interested in investing large sums of money in something like a skateboard park in the river for some weirdos who change clothes in the parking lot. However local governments are very interested in the ways that potential projects can highlight what is unique about their community and bring in potential tax revenue increases. That whitewater parks are a boost to a local economy is a proven fact. Lead with all the great benefits to your community that anyone can understand.
  • Consult an Expert. Ok, I swear I am not shilling for my engineering firm…there are other people out there designing whitewater parks as well, but after you stimulate some local interest you need to find someone to help. If you want to reach out to me you can email me from the Badfish site.  Getting a whitewater park project going takes answering a lot of tough questions for regulatory agencies and that requires expert help.

In the before/after photos above you can see where a dangerous and environmentally destructive low head dam in Dayton, Ohio was converted into a true community asset. Being a part of that kind of change in your community is a personally gratifying experience. Aside from all the hours of fun I have had in the river in Salida its been amazing to witness all the changes to my community as a result of the park. Taking the first step is always the hardest, inertia will carry you much of the rest of the way…so go for a walk or drive along your local waterway and see if you can envision a wave in your hometown!

See you on the river, Mike Harvey

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