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Whitewater parks: an unlikely drought bailout

Expensive artificial wave features can ease dry times for river economies.


River economies rely on the flow of water. Healthy fish populations live at around 65 cubic feet per second. Tubers thrive at around 100 cfs. And experienced kayakers need about 200 cfs to bother showing up. Big tour raft guides need somewhere around 300 cfs. All of this adds up to a kind of water currency for river towns that booms and busts. But when river flows are too low to float big rafts, some towns are finding they can still attract visitors through creative engineering — by building whitewater play parks.

A kayaker in the Truckee Whitewater Park during the 2009 Reno River Festival. The river was flowing at 1160 cfs during this event, according to USGS stream flow data.
Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority

Whitewater parks have been popping up all over the West since the 1980s, engineered with low water levels in mind. The projects typically involve a redesign of riverbeds, often with the help of concrete, boulders, sand and rocks to create bottlenecks, which create rushes of water, and “plunge pools,” which add depth. All of these additions, strategically placed to encourage recreation, make not only for more exciting whitewater but also for stabilized flows, which can squeeze a little more use out of water when levels are low. 

In Reno, Nevada, the river recreation economy has suffered this year. The flow of the Truckee River through downtown in mid-July was 26 cubic feet per second, which is just a step up from stagnant, thanks to this year’s abysmal snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas. Private rafting companies haven’t toured that section of the river, which features a whitewater park built in 2004, for more than six weeks. James Bell, owner and operator of a private rafting company, Wild Sierra Adventures, says he will likely need to cancel trips on other stretches of the Truckee soon. “This has been the worst year ever,” Bell says; normally raft trips account for 60 percent of his business. 

But surprisingly, people are still drawn to the slow waters downtown around the whitewater park — mostly families and children wading and swimming in the river. As drought conditions linger, “a modest splash from a man-made wave gives the river an extended life,” says Bethany Drysdale, director of public relations for the Nevada Commission on Tourism. And even though raft trips are waning, the park attracts tubers who rent gear from him, says Bell, which helps his business.

On the surface, the parks might not seem like wise investments when the water gets lower. Whitewater parks are expensive to build and, though free to use, are almost always city-managed and publicly funded. Their economic impact is largely indirect.

Still, the Truckee Whitewater Park in Reno, which cost a relatively cheap $1.5 million, has become a draw for both businesses and tourists. Prior to its construction, the city’s downtown section of the river had no access point, and few businesses flourished in that part of town. But the “beautification” of the river, says Ben McDonald, communications manager for the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, drew in new enterprises and created the new River Walk District. He says that area has provided a boost for Reno. “There wasn’t much down there before that, but now the downtown river park is a tourist destination.” According to a visitor profile study commissioned by the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority in 2007, whitewater recreation attracted 13 percent of the approximately 4.3 million people who visit Reno each year. Those visitors spend an average of $680 each. “Even though the drought has been bad this year, people have been able to get closer to the waters than they were able to before,” says Peggy Nelson-Aguilar, recreation supervisor for the City of Reno.

Reno was one of the few cities in the West whose whitewater suffered from the drought this year. The “May miracle” brought a lot of rain that boosted flows in Colorado, New Mexico and much of the Midwest. (In fact, a section of the South Platte, in Colorado, was closed for part of the summer because its flows were dangerously high.) Either way, though, many cities see parks as worth the cost, one that will help out on the off-miracle years. "When it’s a drought year, the park still provides a good wave,” says Cathy Metz, parks and recreation director of the City of Durango. “Without a whitewater park, we would see a downfall in users.” 

When the Reno project was accepted in 2002, projections of the return on investment ranged from $1.9 million to $4.1 million in the first year, according to the Truckee River Recreation Plan. For comparison, Durango, Colorado, commissioned an economic impact study of its whitewater park in 2006 and found that the park and the Lower Animas River generated $18 million per year.  

Beyond dollars and cents, whitewater parks offer other incentives in dry years. Around the West, engineered parks extend the paddling season, says Nathan Fey, the Colorado River stewardship director for American Whitewater. “With low flows, whitewater parks begin to address some of the demand of the varied users attracted to rivers,” Fey says. The natural peaks provide recreation opportunities for seasoned paddlers, but whitewater parks keep the water exciting even as the levels dwindle. The features also attract new people to water sports. The big question, though, is how far into the future water parks can be beneficial? As of yet, there’s no such thing as a drought-proof river. And, as Gary Lacy, engineer of the Truckee Whitewater Park, says: “You can’t make water out of nothing.”

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial intern at High Country News.