More than 100 people attended a presentation on developing a whitewater park in the Yahara River last week, and it drew lots of questions, mostly about safety.
The crowd appeared supportive of the project, which Parks and Recreation director Dan Glynn began investigating a couple of years ago and talking about publicly last year.
For the May 16 presentation at the Stoughton Opera House, Glynn introduced Gary Lacy, president of Colorado-based Recreation Engineering and Planning Inc. Lacy discussed other whitewater parks his company has built throughout the country and showed a concept plan with seven pools, pedestrian trails and a viewing area.
Bob Diebel, an experienced canoeist who’s a member of the city’s River and Trails Task Force, appreciated the visuals Lacy presented, which included images from at least 13 parks projected on a large screen in the auditorium.
“All those wonderful pictures of what they’ve done elsewhere in the country was a great way to build confidence that it would be a good thing for Stoughton,” Diebel said.
Lacy explained the parks he builds are suitable for canoeing, kayaking, inner tubing and standup paddle boarding. He added the community has the ability to determine what Stoughton’s park should be and that safety “has to be the No. 1 priority” when designing a whitewater park.
Lacy recommended the city design a park for paddlers of all abilities, but he later said a park here would probably be geared toward novice paddlers, given the size of the river.
The Yahara River isn’t wide enough to have multiple channels, which would allow for different skill levels on the water at the same time, he said, but it has a strong current and consistent flow.
The concept plan shows a bypass channel going to the south around the dam near the Fourth Street bridge and flowing beneath a proposed pedestrian bridge. It includes a series of seven pools – one before the dam, four between the dam and the Fourth Street bridge, and two drops leading to larger pools downstream of the bridge – possibly along with an “adjustable” standing wave just past the dam upstream from the bridge. It also features a spectator area, a beach and about 2,000 lineal feet of trail through the downtown area.
Further downstream, the plan includes a second pedestrian bridge, connecting Mandt Park to the Redevelopment Authority’s riverfront redevelopment area.
Glynn has estimated the park would cost some $2.2 million to develop and has said with grants and other financial assistance, the city’s cost could be reduced to $300,000-$350,000.
Some doubt but support
Audience questions included potential hazards inherent to whitewater parks.
People asked about the safety of an unsupervised water park and off-hours use, the potential of conflict between different types of users (inner tubes versus kayaks, for example) and the possibility for accidents when inexperienced people find themselves in rapids.
Resident Eric Olsen, a former safety chair of a national paddlers’ organization and also for the UW-Hoofers club, asked about the potential for a boat with an inexperienced paddler becoming “broached” between a hard surface and the forceful current.
Lacy responded that the small drops and pools in the Yahara wouldn’t be dangerous. He said if a boat were to capsize, the current would carry it swiftly to the shallow end of a pool, where a person could easily stand in two or three feet of water to regain equilibrium.
He also suggested the city could offer basic safety classes for novice paddlers.
Olsen later said he had some doubts, particularly with an unsupervised park and novices who might choose not to wear a lifejacket or helmet.
Lynne Diebel, an avid paddler who’s traveled hundreds of miles in a canoe with her husband, Bob, and written several books on the subject, was pleased with Lacy’s presentation and the thought of a whitewater park being developed close to the downtown.
“One of the things that made me really happy is that there would be a fish passage past the dam,” Lynne Diebel said. “It’s going to change the river dynamic in a nice way.”
She said the park would give people a new appreciation of the river.
Bob Diebel said a whitewater park would “draw people from all over” to Stoughton.
“Gary Lacy has enough experience with his other projects to be able to give a pretty good prediction about the success likelihood for Stoughton,” he said. “I look forward to doing it and think it’ll be fun. There’s lots of cool things you can do with boat-handling skills and playing around in water that is not necessarily that challenging.”