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What to Consider When Developing a Whitewater Park

Posted by Kenny Smith on January 31, 2018 at 11:47 AM

Whitewater rafting, kayaking and river surfing are quickly becoming some of the most popular adventure sports in America. Given this growing popularity, recreation departments across the country are building whitewater parks as entertainment attractions. Before building a whitewater park in your city, town or county, it is important to understand the hazards that accompany the construction of these parks. This evaluation will require significant skills in risk identification, contractual risk transfer, signage wording, site inspection and working with your legal consultant, etc.

Infrastructure and Hazards

There are a number of approaches in which to construct a whitewater park, all of which utilize unique methods to shape the course of the river. In-channel parks modify the flow of water to create hydrologic features in the river. Out-of-channel whitewater parks divert the flow from another body of water to manipulate the river’s features. After the desired affect is applied to the course, the flow is then redirected back to the original body of water. Recirculating parks use pumps to move water to and through specific areas. Parks may also employ diversions to obstruct or move water off-river, similar to a dam.  

All methods of construction require man-made infrastructure to create chutes, waves and pools. The complexity of the infrastructure used also introduces risks. As a result of these additional risks, it is especially important to hire experienced contractors and engineers that specialize in whitewater infrastructure, water sports knowledge and hydraulics.

One type of artificial infrastructure that is commonly used on whitewater courses is a weir. A weir is a short dam built across a river to increase the river’s depth upstream. This causes the water to spill over the top, often creating a current flow on the backside of the structure that can entrap swimmers and watercrafts. Cement blocks are also commonly used in the construction of whitewater parks, which can often be as large as small cars. They are placed strategically throughout the course to create waves or chutes and often use existing rock from the river bed. The rapids that result from these material often lead to increased water movement. Due to seasonal water flow fluctuations, the park may shift from a low hazard level to a moderate hazard level in a matter of seconds.

Inspections and Signage

In addition to routine inspections, consider increasing inspection frequency during times of drought or high rainfall. Hazards posed by low or high water should be included in park signage so that visitors can take appropriate action depending on the seasonal flows observed that day. When considering the severity of the risks involved, whitewater parks should be signed as “use at your own risk” and “unsupervised facility.”  The signage should also recommend that a user wear appropriate safety gear, such as a life preserver and helmet.

After identifying the hazards for the type of park you wish to construct, other items to explore include recreational immunity and general liability. Check your state’s statutes regarding these factors, as well as for duty to warn and protection lost if a fee is charged.

Risk Management Plan

While whitewater parks are growing in popularity, the risk management guidance information is limited. One of the best forms of protection against litigation and liability is a strong risk management plan developed in conjunction with your entity’s legal counsel.  A risk management plan for a whitewater park should include, but not be limited to, designing the course using whitewater industry consultants/contractors, using signs to warn visitors of the risks at hand, developing a use-at-your-own-risk approach, recommending appropriate life preservers/helmets and routine inspections with documentation.

If your public entity is considering adding a whitewater park, consult with not only your risk management team, but also an engineer specializing in the infrastructure.