California’s Dearth of Whitewater Parks

We have a wealth of rivers, but have yet to join the wave of building community whitewater parks

By Pete Gauvin and Wendy Lautner

Reno bet on its downtown river park and it has payed back royally. Crowd watching the competition at last year’s Reno River Festival, May 7-9 this year. Photo by Digiman Photography.

Ask any California kayaker about the quality of whitewater rushing out of the Sierra each spring and summer and you’ll likely get the posture and poise of a rich kid telling you how much his dad makes in a month. There’s a reason we’re smug – California has whitewater like Bill Gates has millions.

But if you’re not a kayaker, if you don’t spend rainy, snowy and/or spring evenings refreshing flow sites, reading and rereading guidebooks, plotting your work schedule based on weather reports, gluing gaskets into dry tops and the like, chances are you wouldn’t know the extent of the wealth we have tumbling at the bottom of dozens of mostly remote canyons from the Kern to the Klamath.

For all of our natural wealth, whitewater kayaking on the whole is less observable and prominent in California. One reason for the gap is that while communities in many western states and across the country have built whitewater parks to revive river frontages, create greenbelts, clean up streambeds, improve fish habitat, celebrate the intermingling of waterways and townscapes, and, yeah, to provide some wholesome outdoor recreation — California has, for the most part, watched this trend from behind its rip-rapped levees.

Gone Boatin’

In Colorado alone, there are now nearly 30 whitewater parks, more than a quarter of the country’s total. This is attributable to Colorado’s mountainous geography, of course, as well as its strong outdoor community, which in turn begets a vigorous concentration of whitewater boaters. The parks are often located in ski resort towns but also in urban centers, such as Confluence Park on the South Platte River in Denver, and in towns such as Pueblo, Salida, Boulder, Golden and Pagosa Springs.

Elsewhere in the West, there are also whitewater parks in cities such as Spokane, Boise, Missoula, and Ogden.

Closer to home is Reno’s Truckee River Whitewater Park, just steps from downtown’s casino district. It is routinely cited as one of the finest examples of a successful whitewater park/river rehabilitation/community beautification project in the country. The $1.5 million park has far exceeded expectations as an urban renewal project since the city and two casinos pooled their chips to get it built and opened in 2004.

In addition to its year-round community benefits, the park hosts one of the largest and most popular whitewater festivals in the world, the Reno River Festival. The seventh annual Reno River Festival, May 7-9, is expecting some 40,000 people to attend to watch top kayakers compete in freestyle and downriver competitions and soak in the festival atmosphere, which includes live music, free kayak clinics, a muddy fun run, an outdoor expo, and food and beer vendors. This year organizers have added a downriver standup paddleboard race as well.

Reno’s park has been so successful that the neighboring city of Sparks built its own whitewater park a couple years ago just a few miles downstream at Rock Park. So Nevada now has two whitewater parks to invite people to play in and gain respect for the Truckee River, and in turn other rivers.

A little to the south, the Carson City area is also realizing the benefits of improved river access. On May 22, local officials will cut the ribbon to mark the opening of new park facilities for whitewater rafting and kayaking on the Carson River Aquatic Trail, which includes a 9.3-mile Class III run between Carson City and Dayton.

Behind the Wave

California, on the other hand, has yet to join the flow.

To date, there is not a single significant whitewater park project constructed in California. The only ones that might qualify are the quasi-developed park on the Kern River in Kernville (a decades-old dam mitigation project) and the rough-hewn artificial rapids at the site of the abandoned Auburn Dam project, below the confluence of the North and Middle Forks of the American River. The “Auburn Play Park” actually features some promising hydraulics, but public access is lacking; there’s no riverside parking (it’s two miles up hill), no facilities, and no improvements to the bank area.

In California, many towns and cities turn their backs on their waterways, channeling them behind levees and the backs of buildings, where they become riparian dumping grounds, strewn with litter and shopping carts and industrial debris, rather than natural assets for the community to enjoy. This is often due to historical land-use patterns and the threat of flooding. True, many of these streams are not suitable for whitewater boating, but in some cases they could be. Moreover, they can become community draws that benefit much more than just a small group of kayakers — from dog walkers and baby stroller pushers to fishing line casters, young naturalists, ankle waders and rock skippers … Everyone enjoys a nice water feature.

Take the Truckee River, again, as an example. Flowing through its namesake town, a mountain community with a high concentration of outdoor enthusiasts, including kayakers, the river has few public access points. On the west end of town, a collection of auto and industrial yards back to the river in what is otherwise one of its prettiest stretches. Through town, private homes back to the river, and historically this area was the town’s dump. It’s still a lovely stretch of river with some small natural rapids and good fishing, but it’s degraded by poor access and the presence of rebar in the riverbed. This is true even in front of the Truckee River Regional Park, which would be a natural spot to provide better river access, cleanup the rebar in the river and perhaps add some whitewater features to what is now a rocky, boney stretch.

It seems a little backward, doesn’t it? The neon-lit, vacancy riddled casino towns downstream in the desert have better developed river access than the sporty mountain town with which the river shares its name. (And this is true not just at the whitewater parks, but at multiple parks along the river in the Reno area.)

It’s no wonder then that the teenager roundly considered the best young kayaker in the nation, the current Junior Freestyle World Champion, 16-year-old Jason Craig, is from Reno. It’s difficult to develop tennis champions without tennis courts, baseball players without baseball diamonds, golfers without golf courses, skiers without ski areas … and paddlers without easy access to rivers.

Broadening the Base

Dave Steindorf is the California Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, a national non-profit that works to protect and restore rivers and public access to them. He believes the first thing that needs to change to buoy chances for whitewater parks in California is the terminology.

“I think we do ourselves a disservice when we say, ‘whitewater park,’” he says. “It alienates people. A surf wave is just another swing set or a slide in a park area, it’s just another toy to play on.”

In order to expand the support base from the relatively small community of river users to a broader swath of the public, Steindorf believes that advocates for whitewater parks need to refer to them more generally as “river parks with whitewater amenities,” or something along those lines.

Space, Water, Gradient

Beyond the language the more concrete problem in California, says Steindorf, is the lack of suitable locations. “There aren’t many places out there that actually have free flowing rivers” due to dams, hydropower projects and agricultural diversions.

Jim Litchfield, designer of the Reno and Sparks parks and director of the non-profit Truckee River Foundation, says that despite California’s numerous rivers there aren’t a lot of opportunities for river parks within communities.

Beyond money and political will, “a whitewater park requires three things – space, water and gradient,” Litchfield says. In the Sierra foothills, rivers don’t flow through many towns; they’re in the bottom of canyons, while the towns are on the ridges, like Auburn. And in the valley, river towns may not have enough gradient, though it doesn’t take much.

But it’s a big state and there are still plenty of locations with the potential for river parks with some boater amenities in California.

One reason that’s made the rounds for the lack of success in getting any approved is that California’s more stringent environmental regulations and gauntlet of overlapping jurisdictional agencies make it near impossible to win approval for any project in which there would be a disturbance or modification of a natural riverbed, even if that riverbed had been altered and degraded previously.

But Litchfield says that’s a myth. “In the past the regulatory process has been looked at as an obstacle rather than a process. But as rigorous as it is, it can be worked through.”

And with greater awareness of whitewater parks and their benefits, he thinks there will be more receptivity from officials in coming years. “There’s a fundamental shift occurring with examples like Reno and Salida, Colorado, that river recreation can be integrated into the heart of the community,” he says.

Riverfront Successes

There are a number of California cities and towns that Litchfield points to that have vital and revitalized riverfront parks, such as the American River Parkway in Sacramento, Bidwell Park along Big Chico Creek in Chico, and the Sacramento River through Redding.

More recently, the city of Napa completed a massive flood-control project that embraces the Napa River through downtown with Euro-style bridges, terraces and a paved bike and walking path. The project has helped transform and revitalize the downtown, and improved recreational opportunities such as cycling and flatwater kayaking.

While these examples don’t incorporate whitewater amenities, they are examples of cities that have strived to integrate rivers and stream developments into the fabric of the town to improve the environment for the benefit of the entire community.

As a recreational asset, the American River Parkway is a shining example. It extends 23 miles from downtown Sacramento east to Nimbus Dam (Lake Natoma), where the bike/walking trail continues another 10 miles to Folsom Lake. The parkway is a thriving multiple use area complete with a paved bike paths, hundreds of unimproved trails, picnic areas, and lots of river access.

“It’s quite the deal,” says Ron Storks, a policy advocate for Friends of the River. “It’s a cherished part of the community with a real rich history.”

The American River Parkway is such an asset to the community that the recently incorporated city of Rancho Cordova chose to design its city seal with a kayaker playing on a river wave.

But that’s a little misleading; the parkway doesn’t feature much in the way of whitewater. Kayakers used to flock to the popular, natural feature called the San Juan Wave/Hole, but river flooding in 2006 seemed to diminish this rare urban whitewater feature from its once retentive but forgiving nature to a less-than-ideal surf wave.

No Cookie-Cutter Approach

When it comes to whitewater parks, you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach from one community to another, says Litchfield, whose company Fluid Concepts has designed and consulted on a number of river park projects in addition to the parks in Reno and Sparks.

“The Reno park is truly a unique venue,” Litchfield says. “The location has great weather, a supportive industry and economy, Reno has a relatively large population, and we can depend on the river for good, clean water (flows).”

Yet even with everything the Reno park has going for it, the road from concept to creation wasn’t easy. “What kept it going was endurance, enthusiasm, and legitimacy,” Litchfield says. “It started out as a kayak-centric whitewater park, but where it really got its legs is when the idea became more of a whitewater park for general usage. Then we got the Nevada Commission of Tourism on board and things started moving forward.”

There are no plans for additional whitewater parks on the Truckee River, he says. “I’ve talked just as many or more communities out of developing as I have into developing their river into a whitewater park,” he says. “The reach upstream of Reno on the Truckee is a really nice reach. We wouldn’t want to go in and try to ‘make it better.’ I’ve often said that the enemy of good is better.”

Dam Hopes

What are the future prospects of whitewater parks in California? You could say they’re dam good.

Dams are required to go through what is called a “re-licensing” process overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to ensure they are “operating within the public interest.”

This spells opportunity for river advocacy groups like American Whitewater. AW’s Dave Steindorf is among those leading the effort to use these re-licensing processes to demand that lost recreation from damming these rivers be mitigated.

“I’d say in the next 10 to 15 years we’ll see a lot more whitewater parks in California as a result of FERC re-licensing,” says Litchfield. “These things require an often unrewarded passion and commitment. I can’t over encourage Californians to get involved with American Whitewater and find out what is going on with projects on their local rivers.”

A Whitewater Park in Oroville?

One major test of the dam re-licensing process is already underway.

This winter, as part of the re-licensing of Oroville Dam, the California Department of Water Resources, the dam’s operator, issued a $250,000 feasibility study on constructing a whitewater park at one of three potential sites below the dam. Completed in 1968, it is the tallest dam in the United States (770 feet) and impounds all four forks of the Feather River.

Developing a whitewater park in Oroville was an idea first suggested by American Whitewater as a means of mitigating the lost whitewater opportunities that were flooded when Lake Oroville was created. The top whitewater park designers in the country have drooled at the potential here with its substantial year-round flows (ranging from 600 to 6000 cfs) and possibility for a course of more than a mile in length.

“American Whitewater’s focus is to restore and protect rivers,” Steindorf says. “And one of our successes is to get licensees to look at the impact of a project on recreation. Oroville is a really good example of a community getting together to bring their river back. The local community is very interested in this project and this is coming from people who are not just whitewater boaters.”

The “not just whitewater boaters” part of the equation is huge because less than 1 or 2 percent of California’s population could be classified as whitewater boaters, according to DWR’s “Feather River Whitewater Boating Feasibility Study.” Steindorf realizes this number is like a drop in the bucket and unlikely to wield much sway with state officials.

He argues though that the number of people who would actually benefit from a whitewater park on the Feather River extends far beyond so-called boaters. “More than 700,000 people per year use Lake Oroville. These are the numbers we should be drawing from to calculate interest in a whitewater park.”

Calculating interest is crucial. The DWR study considers three sites for the construction of a whitewater park in Oroville, ranging in cost estimates from approximately $150,000 up to $20 million. The amount of perceived interest will likely play a big role in deciding how much money is worth spending on a park.

The conclusion of the 228-page study? Well, it’s a bit vague.

The report notes that the continuous year-round flow of water below Oroville Dam provides “potential synergisms for whitewater boating opportunities.” Of the three sites considered — a small instream park at “Bedrock Park” and two artificial channel parks, “Fish Barrier Pool” and “Riverbend Canyon” — the study ranks the Fish Barrier Pool site as the most feasible alternative with the fewest constraints, as tops for drawing out-of-town paddlers, for holding competitions, and bringing in revenue to the Oroville community.

The site includes more than 26 acres of state-owned land on the west bank of the river. According to a conceptual design done by the city of Oroville it would allow for a winding course more than 4,000 feet in length with novice, intermediate and expert features in two channels, along with trails and pedestrian bridges, and terraced seating and observation areas for spectators. Sounds like it could be spectacular.

But the feasibility study stops well short of an all out endorsement and appears to pave the way only for more studies. “The potential economic viability and environmental constraints need to be well understood before any of the concepts described in this report move forward,” it states.

Steindorf says they were hoping for a more concrete recommendation from the feasibility study. “The primary issue with the study is that it does not lead us to a very clear path of what park option, if any, should be developed in Oroville. For $250,000 they should have been able to answer that question.”

So, hold your surprise, it doesn’t look like paddlers will be surfing waves at a whitewater park in Oroville anytime soon.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Wendy Lautner of Truckee is an accomplished kayaker and whitewater instructor with a long resume of remote river canyons in California and beyond to her credit. Pete Gauvin, also of Truckee, is an intermittent river paddler who prefers less committing runs closer to home. Both would like to see more opportunities for paddlers in our communities, if only to encourage people to explore the natural richness we have in the more remote folds of our state.

2 thoughts on “California’s Dearth of Whitewater Parks

  1. hilde schweitzer

    Great article illustrating the economic value of whitewater features! I negotiate as a private boater in hydro relicenses and wish there were more data to support pushing for features through the relicense process. The MF relicense, specifically the area below the Confluence, is a perfect example of where to target money for features like this.

  2. Pete Gauvin

    Thanks Hilde. The old Auburn Dam site definitely looks to be a great opportunity to provide some facilities and improved access to the “Auburn Play Park” features. It would seem to be a natural site because it would be a public improvement to a degraded area and in close proximity to a large and avid community of paddlers in the Sacramento region. .. Round ‘em up and keep pushing. Let us know of any developments or if can can help by shining a light on the issue.

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