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Whitewater Parks as Economic, Environmental and Safety Solutions

By Risa Shimoda

Re-engineered rivers have become important public amenities for dozens of communities across the nation. The list of stories about city leaders interested in rediscovering and integrating river-based activity and enjoyment into the fabric of daily life is lengthening. Here are a few of the landmark projects as well as new completed projects that are making history on their own.

South Bend, Indiana

The East Race Waterway was modeled after the whitewater slalom course built for the 1972 Olympics Games. Like the historic course constructed in Augsburg, Germany, the course was designed to divert water from its St. Joseph River: it lets gravity do the work to return the flow 1,900 feet downstream. When the East Race Waterway opened in 1984, the $5 million project rescued the East Race, once the Civil War era driver of industry that had become nothing more than a bunch of overgrown, underdeveloped lots. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2013, the park has hosted dozens of regional and national slalom competitions and over 300,000 paddlers, and is open for rafting and open kayaking during the spring and summer months.

According to the city’s Department of Community Investment, an estimated $78 million in economic development has occurred in the area since the race opened. The race is now home to restaurants, shops, office buildings, condos and townhomes. Relocated businesses include AM General headquarters, the Commerce Center, The Pointe Apartments, Memorial Epworth Center (formerly Madison Center), and the Emporium. Visit http://sbpark.org/parks/east-race-waterway for more information.

Denver, Colorado

Confluence Park, the site of a devastating flood in the 1960s, represents a restoration of the City’s birthplace where the South Platte River and Cherry Creek meet.  Risk of flood has been minimized and related opportunity for private investment has been fueled by lowering the regulatory flood plain.

Confluence Park is the hub of a revitalized urban area surrounded by residential lofts, sports stadiums, office buildings, and shops. From the $70 million used to renew and redevelop this area of Denver, the city has benefited from an estimated nearly $10 billion in private investment. During the past few years 80202, immediately surrounding Confluence Parks, has been the highest per capita zip code in the US.

The Confluence Park Boat Chute serves the City and County of Denver in many ways:

  • The floodplain was improved by one foot, which is significant by land management standards
  • Drops, waves, and pools are enjoyable by beginner paddlers at many water levels
  • The site is a venue for events on, and at, the banks of the river
  • Water quality has improved
  • Sampling implies that the diversity of fish species has increased

Visit http://mclaughlinwhitewater.com/projects/confluence-park/ for more information.

Charles City, Iowa

When City Administrator Tom Brownlow stepped up to receive the 2012 All Star Community Award on behalf of Charles City during the Iowa League of Cities Annual Conference, he learned he had been named the 2012 City Manager of the Year for his contribution to the community, in part for converting a low head dam into the state’s first whitewater park that now draws thousands to the banks of the Cedar River, what Tom recalls as having been described as “the stupidest project, ever.”


Besides inviting a new generation of recreation, the city has facilitated fish passage, and developed the state’s largest permeable paving system, reducing storm water runoff and related river pollutants.


Anglers who thought the Charles City Whitewater at Riverfront Park project would ruin their favorite pastime were backed up by opposition from the Isaac Walton League… until the project was built. At least one representative reacted to the course by saying “if I were a small mouth bass, this is where I’d go.” The League subsequently assisted with the development of a boat launch, river plantings, and two years of volunteer service.

The project cost was $1.4 million, and first year impact estimates range from $746,000 to $833,000. (Sources of estimates: http://www.kearneywhitewater.org/number-one/; http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/investigations/2015/01/27/removing-lowhead-dams-making-parks/22441793/)

Ann Arbor, Michigan

The “Argo Cascades” consist of a series of (nine) minor drops that bypass a dam, popular for paddling canoes, open top kayaks, rafts and tubes. Here’s a video of a run from a paddler’s perspective. https://youtu.be/U-OmVp_UZzA

In addition to addressing a number of environmental and recreational issues, the project has created positive change for the local economy.   The visitor count rose from 36,000 in 2011 to more than 50,000 in 2012, with a corresponding 58% increase in revenue.   With the portage gone, tubing and rafting have now been added to the list of activities that can be enjoyed on the river, attracting visitors who would rather float than paddle.  Tubing rentals alone accounted for $20,000 in new revenue in the first season. The success of the project has had a ripple effect on other sites along the river.  Today the trails, the rock drops, and grassy banks are utilized by many to picnic, walk, bicycle, relax, and to listen to the water cascading over the rocks.


Columbus, Georgia

The re-engineered section of the Lower Chattahoochee that flows between Columbus, Georgia on the west, and Phenix City to the east, is the longest urban whitewater rafting in existence.   The 2.5 mile course includes Class III-V whitewater at high water, and USA Today picked the Chattahoochee Whitewater Park as one of the World’s Top 12 Man-Made Adventures. The project removed two dams, cost $23 million, and is expected to create up to 700 jobs. In its first two years, the rafting outfitter hosted 40,000 guests, contributing to the economic benefit to Columbus, Georgia and Phenix, Alabama. Early projections indicated the direct and indirect annual economic benefits to range from $7.1 to $11.9 million. Approaching its second anniversary, the estimated benefit is now $42 million.



Whitewater parks are created for fans of the outdoors, their rivers and the community members’ bottom line. Projects are usually catalyzed by paddlers who see an opportunity and fueled by their passion, though they represent a fraction of the body of visitors who use the river and hike, run, or bike its banks.

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