Rafting the Great Waller
Outdoorsman envisions converting sluggish creek into hardcore white-water rafting rapids
After decades of rocky starts and stops, the rebirth of Waller Creek that urban stream running prominently through Downtown is ready to take to the water. With the county's help, the city will soon undertake a $124 million tunnel project to keep the creek's flow and water level safe and constant. Aside from pulling a million square feet of developable, desirable land out of the hundred-year floodplain, the project is trumpeted as bridging the east-west separation of I-35. But one outdoorsman envisions yet another use for Waller, one that may sound impractical or downright bizarre at first: converting the sleepy creek into white-water rafting rapids, capable of holding the sport's national championships.
"I speak creeks," says Jim Stuart, winding along Waller's trash-strewn trail. "This one's been maligned, mistreated, and misunderstood." Stuart should know. Prior to his career in international telecommunications, he spent 20 years in the nascent, pre-REI outdoors industry, mainly in kayaking and rafting; his friends outfitted Ned Beatty with his Deliverance river gear (and mercifully, not his famous squeal). But it was his second career that drew Stuart to Austin three years ago, and, more specifically, to a tech conference at the Convention Center. There, he had an aquatic epiphany of sorts.
"I walked out the door and said holy cow I saw the creek running, right next to a convention center, restaurants, and hotels in the middle of Downtown. And a lot of the infrastructure is already there."
The creek's urban environment is a far cry from the Savage River's surroundings in western Maryland in the late 1980s, Stuart had a hand in organizing the world white-water rafting championships there, a planning catastrophe akin to crossing the Alps. Bringing in thousands of contestants and spectators by train, amassing caravans to the lake, and arranging a battalion of Porta-Potties provided "huge logistical problems," he says. Comparatively, Waller runs past all the amenities a modern Downtown could offer.
"I look at this as primarily a theme around which developers can build," says Stuart; aside from attracting sporting events and outdoor conventions, he sees additional revenue in kayaking and rafting concessions for the creek and the possibility of making Austin a regional leader in emergency water-rescue training. Lastly, he says the currents would keep the waters clean, a far cry from Waller's current sludgy state. "I don't want to overstate its importance, but I look at this as something like the Jack Kennedy moon mission," Stuart says. "Forget the white-water park I view this as a commitment by the city to stay green, to be in the top environmental tier."
Astonishingly, there's somewhat of a precedent for this type of urban rapids. Denver's Confluence Park offers white-water rafting through Lower Downtown; similarly, South Bend, Ind., has seen millions of development dollars drive Warehouse District-like restaurants and stores around its East Race Waterway. The main investment required is a stronger pump to recirculate the water. The pump station planned at Waterloo should move the water along at a leisurely 5 cubic feet per second. Stuart says upgrading to two 175 cubic-feet-per-second pumps would allow planners to ratchet up the rapids for competitions, keep them at a more moderate rate for enthusiasts during concession hours, and leave the water at its regular gait otherwise.
It wouldn't be the first time the city has considered a white-water park. The Lower Colorado River Authority paid for a white-water study at Longhorn Dam back in 1994, says Butch Smith, senior planner at the Parks Department. But the price a little less than $5 million kept it from reaching a bond election. (It's appropriate to mention that nontraditional sports like skateboarding and BMX got their due in the most recent bond election.)
Periodically, Smith says, people revisit the idea of a park at Longhorn or elsewhere, "but this idea that Jim Stuart has about Waller Creek has more merit than most of them. It's a very exciting idea." Unlike a man-made park by the dam, he says Waller is a "natural setting" for white water; moreover, a 70-foot drop between Waterloo Park and Town Lake gives Waller the continuous, easy gradient white water requires. Lastly, Austin's an ideal setting for rafting because of its warm climate, Smith says. While there's still a multitude of questions about the tunnel project like what form funding for parks and trails along the creek will come in, the $124 million only covers the tunnel, pump, an inlet at Waterloo, and an amphitheatre at Town Lake Smith is confident Stuart's vision could be incorporated into the project. "I certainly think Jim Stuart has a lot of experience and expertise. I'm confident with his take on the site."
Sheryl Cole, the City Council member pushing the tunnel project, isn't quite so sure. "At this stage, I don't know if it's feasible," noting that her recently created Waller Creek Citizens Advisory Committee is being assembled to consider such ideas. "But as far as I know, none of the ideas consider white water. We would really have to evaluate whether that's something the city wants Downtown," one compatible with her vision of a "very Austin-like amenity." Good point but what would be Austin weirder than looking out the deck of the Boiling Pot on Sixth Street and seeing kayakers white-knuckle down Waller Creek?
For more photos see the Web Extra Photo Feature "A Stroll Along Waller Creek."