International Canoe Federation (ICF) podcast host John Gregory chats with S2O Design founder Scott Shipley about whitewater course design, RapidBlocks, and the way in which canoe slalom and paddlesport park venues have evolved.
“From Montgomery, AL, to the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains, artificial whitewater parks are sweeping across the U.S. as communities embrace the economic potential of their local waterways and recognize the recreational and revenue value.”
How do you turn a storm into a chamber of commerce day? Add $50 million worth of water.
Government officials, military leaders, business executives and representatives of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians exchanged smiles and hugs in a downpour Thursday as they cheered the official start of construction on a $50 million, government-backed whitewater park and outdoor center here. It’s a project that originally was announced two years ago as a complex public-private partnership, led by Montgomery County, and the expected opening was delayed as those deals shifted during the pandemic.
Those meeting in the rain Thursday praised a tenacity and spirit of collaboration in reaching the groundbreaking event. “We are Republicans and Democrats with the same vision,” Montgomery County Commission Chairman Elton Dean said. “… They care about making Montgomery… a whole better place to live in.”
The park expects to open in summer 2023 on a 120-acre site between Maxwell Air Force Base and Interstate 65. A pump-powered channel will carry kayakers along a man-made course that winds around a restaurant, shops, an amphitheater and many other amenities. Other planned attractions include a water slide zip line tower visible from the interstate, a biking trail and even a beach area with cabanas.
The city of Montgomery is donating land to the project and has worked to reach an arrangement on a new facility for the Salvation Army, which still has a shelter on the site. Mayor Steven Reed said the Salvation Army “has the final details of the contract now” and that he expects that deal to close soon. That site would not be involved in phase one of construction.
Alabama Power Vice President Leslie Sanders said the property started with 58 different land owners, and the city was able to negotiate all of those deals successfully. “There is no project of this magnitude that does not have challenges every day,” Sanders said. “… A lot of people still think it’s a whitewater amusement park. It takes explaining, and it takes perseverance.”
The construction work ahead is just as daunting, as is the aggressive two-year timeline.
Phase one alone includes a 310,000-square-foot channel for the whitewater course, a system to filter and manage 18 million gallons of water a year, 40,000 square feet of restaurants, retail and other buildings, and more. Senior project manager Jeffrey Gustin of Southern Whitewater Development Group said the first seven to eight months will be spent on site work and prep.
Former Olympian Scott Shipley designed the U.S. National Whitewater Center in North Carolina as well as the 2012 Olympic venue. Shipley has spent the past few months working on a scale test model of the Montgomery facility in the Czech Republic. He said it required him to get special permission from the Czech government to enter the country during the pandemic.
“This will be the most modern whitewater park in the world when it opens in 2023,” Shipley said. “We want to be able to bring international competitors here and have that Olympic standard course, but we also want to make the hurdle to getting your church groups, and your school groups, and your family and friends out on that whitewater much lower.”
Shipley said they’ll offer two channels — one Olympic standard and one for “families to explore whitewater for the first time.”
A local board called the Montgomery County Community Cooperative District was formed to oversee construction, and in April it named JESCO Inc. the general contractor for the project. JESCO also was involved in the construction of Riverwalk Stadium, the Montgomery Regional Airport and several other showpiece projects across central Alabama.
The City of Fort Collins, Colo., and its community members had a dream: the revitalization of the Cache la Poudre River corridor. With the river passing through the city’s downtown, it was an invaluable asset that simply needed rediscovering.
Downtown Denver’s largest mixed-used development, The River Mile, has tapped S2O Design and Engineering to lead a signature component of this complex, dynamic restoration of the heralded South Platte River. Spearheaded by developer Revesco Properties, this one-of-a-kind neighborhood — comprising 62 acres and ultimately up to 15 million square feet of commercial and residential property — will reconnect the city to its iconic urban waterway, improving riparian and aquatic habitat, flood control, and recreation access.
“With $80 million in federal matching funds, river restoration is the project’s fundamental purpose, and it will be one of the most significant river restorations ever undertaken by a private enterprise, anywhere,” says Gregory V. Murphy, president of Calibre Engineering, The River Mile’s civil engineer. “S2O is helping us develop a design solution that’s in alignment with all the stakeholders’ interests.”
Since 1860, the South Platte River has been highly impacted by urban development. In a major commitment by the developer, in partnership with the City of Denver, the Greenway Foundation, and other environmental experts, the project’s goal is to return the river to a more natural state ecologically and physically. The effort will incorporate sustainability, aquatic and riparian habitat enhancements, and flood control along a more than 1-mile-long stretch of this valuable waterway. The project will also improve recreational access via a trail system leading to new fishing and paddling features. The restoration will add 27 acres of riverside parks and open spaces while energizing this new downtown neighborhood.
A leader in river restoration and development, S20 Design brings a unique expertise in integrating recreation into river restoration efforts. Led by engineer and three-time Olympian Scott Shipley, S2O Design has designed and engineered a variety of highly successful in-stream recreation projects and has served as lead designer of some of the world’s most high-profile whitewater recreation and competition venues.
“We are honored to work with such a talented team in restoring and revitalizing this vital natural resource for Denver,” says Shipley. “We are working with some of the early visionaries in urban floodway restoration including the Greenway Foundation and the Mile-High Flood District. This project will set a new standard in how to approach and realize environmental and flood enhancements while also prioritizing human interaction with the river for recreation and relaxation.”
Restoration efforts will improve this section of the river’s in-stream habitat and its riparian and wetland corridor, with fish benefitting from a fully connected habitat throughout the reach and the removal of thousands of tons of silt and sand. The team will replace the existing floodway configuration with a more natural restoration that will create a narrower, deeper low-flow channel. It will also aid in moving sediment better, which helps prevent flooding, but will also provide cooler water for fish habitat and the opportunity for a multi-stage channel with a vibrant riparian zone.
“S2O Design brings the technical expertise with hydraulic modeling, stream restoration, and recreation design needed to make this project a success,” says Heather Houston, President and Senior Ecologist at Birch Ecology. “They have done a great job of listening and facilitating conversations to realize a successful outcome.”
In the past two years, S20 Design has completed in-channel river parks on the Poudre River in Fort Collins, Colo.; the Arkansas River in Canon City, Colo.; the Eagle River in Eagle, Colo.; and the Boise Whitewater Park in Boise, Idaho.
About S2O Design and Engineering
Known for “reinventing whitewater,” Lyons, Colo.-based S2O Design and Engineering specializes in innovative river engineering, restoration, and community-focused whitewater park design. Our team of expert boater-engineers has planned, conceived, designed, and created some of the best in-stream whitewater parks as well as largest and most dynamic recirculating whitewater parks in the world. S2O Design is led by Scott Shipley, a three-time Olympian and three-time World Cup Kayak Champion. For more information, visit S2ODesign.com
Located in the middle of downtown on the Boise River, Phase II of the Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation Boise Whitewater Park, designed by S2O Design, officially opened to great paddling panache with a standing- (and surfing-) room only crowd on the river’s banks downtown.
Already close to some of the best whitewater in the country, Boise, Idaho, is now giving paddlers (and surfers) another reason to visit the Gem State: a gem of a whitewater park, whose second phase celebrated its official gran opening and ribbon-cutting on July 25.
With The first phaseof the park already a huge hit with surfers, kayakers and spectators, Phase II, which Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway says is a great addition to the existing park, adds additional in-stream, adjustible features, employing S20’s patented Rapid-Bloc technology.
“It’s a great addition and extension to the existing whitewater park,” says S20 founder and president Scott Shipley, who attended the opening ceremonies to surf the wave himself. “It’s a perfect river and location for this type of park, which should become a great focal point for the town.”
Phase II includes three purpose-built wave features, as well as a rock formation creating additional rapids. The new wave features, spaced 25 to 50 yards apart, allows users to put in at the start of the existing park and circle back through Esther Simplot Park ponds and into Quinn’s Pond, back near the start.
Holloway says the entire park is now “an aquatic complex” that includes spectator seating and Greenbelt paths along both sides of the river between Esther Simplot Park and Veterans Park Pond. “It’s kind of almost two parks in one,” Holloway said.
The park was designed to provide tubers, paddlers and surfers of all levels an environment conductive to recreational and competitive paddling, viewing, and access. The uppermost feature—tested via a
1:4.5 Froude-scaled model constructed in a flume at the University of Idaho Modeling Lab—is designed to be adjustable and to be transformable from a wave to a hole, for surfers and kayakers.
“The model allowed us to create a hydraulic similarity between simulated flows and those in the proposed channel, as well as test and profile varying geometries,” says Shipley, a three-time Olympian and three-time World Cup slalom kayak champion.“The lab could calibrate incoming flow velocities to those predicted by a 2D model, fine-tune tail-water elevation via the adjustable RapidBlocs system, and create a final wave configuration that’s usable by surfers and kayakers and is adjustable across a wide range of flows and hydraulic conditions.”
All we know is that — like the nearby North and South Forks just a stone’s throw away — it’s a gem of a piece of whitewater.
Eagle, Colorado—population 6,500—has mostly existed in the shadows of the state’s massive ski resorts, as in nearby Vail, and its recreational economy. But Eagle, a year-round community for those who work for the big resorts, has plenty to offer, including mountain scenery, a picturesque downtown, and 100 miles of easily accessible mountain biking trails. In spite of all this, it has never become a top-tier destination.
This can be attributed in part to the fact that Eagle never truly took advantage of its natural assets, like its namesake river, which formed the valley that is home to the town today. Fishermen and kayakers have always made use of the Eagle River, but it’s never been a beacon for visitors, despite its high-profile location along the Interstate 70 corridor.
“A stretch of land next to the river used to be a semi-truck parking lot, basically a pee bottle dumping station,” says Jeremy Gross, the town’s marketing and events manager. “It just wasn’t that inviting.”
That’s set to change this Memorial Day weekend, when the town of Eagle will celebrate the opening of a $2.7 million whitewater park locals hope will set off a new era of development in the area, and connect the south bank of the river with businesses and residents downtown. The new Eagle River whitewater park is the result of a multiyear effort to redevelop the river corridor, and will feature a series of artificial rapids, as well as a resculpted, repurposed riverfront, complete with parks and an amphitheater.
It will be the latest example of how smaller towns and cities see riverfronts in general, and outdoor recreation specifically, as new economic catalysts. Former assistant town planner Matt Gross went so far as to call the new park “Eagle’s beachfront.”
“This is just our way of showcasing the asset that we have,” says Gross. “It’s not like we added the river.”
Natural assets get a new lease on life
The Eagle River Whitewater Park is part of a growing number of artificial recreation areas, especially in the Rocky Mountains region, trying to capitalize on the nation’s rapidly growing outdoor economy. Eagle believes the new whitewater park can make the town a more well-rounded and attractive destination, furthering the potential of its promising location near mountain biking trails.
According to a 2017 economic study by the Outdoor Industry of America, activities like camping and water sports benefit America’s consumers, businesses, and government at all levels. These activities generate a whopping $887 billion annually—about $702 billion by travelers and vacationers—support nearly 8 million jobs, and bring in just over $59 billion in state and local tax revenue. For comparison, the entire nation’s financial services and insurance industry generates $912 billion.
Whitewater parks—either parks like Eagle’s that resurface and redesign riverbeds to support outdoor recreation like kayaking and rafting, or “pump parks” that create artificial new bodies of water for sport—represent a small part of the nation’s huge outdoor industry. They aren’t new: The world’s first artificial whitewater course, a concrete-channel course called the Eiskanal, was created for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where the sport made its Olympic debut, and parks have slowly taken root across the western U.S. since the 1980s.
But now that the idea is firmly established, a number of case studies—including an urban development in Reno, Nevada, and the huge boost Charlotte, North Carolina, saw from a national whitewater training and recreation center—point to such parks’ economic benefits. They’re increasingly being seen as a development tool, not just another entertainment option.
In Eagle’s case, it’s a project for and by the community, says Scott Shipey, CEO of S2O, the company building the park. Shipley, a former world-champion kayaker who competed in three Olympics, says it’s not just a new way to build the sport, but a chance for towns to look at their natural economic assets. The town passed a .5 percent sales tax increase to fund the project.
“A lot of towns have a river running through them,” he says. “In the Midwest, there are dams near towns, which used to power industry, that are rotting away. We can give them an experience they didn’t have before. Just by doing a little bit of manipulation of that river, they can become the Breckenridge of kayaking. These mining and ski towns are starting to leverage this resource.”
Designed with Rapidblocs, a patented S2O system that allows for adjustable riverbeds and rapids, the Eagle Whitewater Park will feature spots for kayakers, rafters, tubers, and even surfers. The waterfront, now filled with parkland and public space, can host festivals and concerts, a big potential boost for businesses downtown.
“Economic development is a slow-moving ship,” says Gross. “Now, with a river park close to town, we’re hoping that increase in business brings the next business to town, and then a few more people, and then suddenly, there’s more development connecting the river to downtown. The river is a big thing we have to offer, it’s a piece of the pie.”
A new addition to beer, bluegrass, and broadband
The renewed push to repurpose riverfront property in more rural parts of the country mirrors what’s happening in urban areas like Brooklyn: With heavy industry and factories gone, games, recreation, and public space have taken their place—and become magnets for people and economic activity.
Existing projects demonstrate that these artificial rapids can really rev up local economies. In Charlotte, the U.S. National Whitewater Center, which opened on roughly 700 acres adjacent to the Catawba River, welcomes 1 million visitors a year, and supports more than 500 jobs. In Durango, Colorado, the whitewater park on the Lower Animas River generates $18 million a year in economic activity, according to an economic impact studycommissioned by local leaders.
Reno, Nevada, offers one of the best illustrations of how river redesign and urban regeneration can work together. The neighborhood around the Truckee River in downtown Reno had become neglected and crime-ridden (“they turned their back on the river, to keep people inside focused on casinos,” says Shipley). Since the $1.5 million whitewater park opened, the streets surrounding the recreation site have seen a boom in new condos, restaurants, bars, and businesses. A 2007 study by the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority found that whitewater recreation attracted 13 percent of the approximately 4.3 million people who visit the city annually.
“There wasn’t much down there before that, but now the downtown river park is a tourist destination,” Ben McDonald, senior communications manager for the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, told High County News.
“There are as many reasons to do this as there are potential parks,” says Shipley. “These parks have millions of dollars in economic impact.”
New developments in water sports
Shipley says the industry, which has steadily grown since he founded his company in 2005, will see more expansion. In addition to the soon-to-open Eagle project, S20 is also working on projects in Fort Collins, Colorado; Canon City, Colorado; and Boise, Idaho. The company’s Rapidblocs system will be used at the site of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and S2O expects more cities, especially in the Rocky Mountain region and the Midwest, to invest in new parks.
Other artificial water sports sites have become an option: Famed surfer Kelly Slater has a company dedicated to creating artificial inland surfing parks, including a site in California’s Central Valley. S2O is also looking at more surfing options, and plans to install new technology to support surfers as part of its ongoing work in Boise, Idaho.
For Eagle’s Jeremy Gross, the river that goes through his hometown has always had potential. But now, it’s more central to the growing Colorado community’s narrative.
“If I’m trying to sell Eagle to you, we’re a quick two hours to Denver, if you leave after work Friday you can be at Eagle by dinner time, and over the weekend, ride 100 miles of trail, bring a board or kayak and get in the river,” he says. “It’s becoming more of a well-rounded destination. We’re an outdoor adventure paradise.”
When London needed a world-class whitewater park for the 2012 Summer Olympics, they turned to a former world champion kayaker to build it, and the company delivered something entirely new when it made a course with the future in mind.
Shipley won the ICF World Cup three times and competed in three Olympics between 1992 and 2000. He subsequently launched S2O to create whitewater parks, both in-stream and pumped, as well as river engineering projects.
Shipley estimates that the company has worked on a total of roughly 150 projects, which are often completed after up to eight years of work, and help towns and cities revitalize both rivers and riverside economies.
For instance, the S2O designed the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has hosted the U.S. Olympic team trials for whitewater sports, and is the largest pumped whitewater course in the world — generates roughly $22 million a year in income for the city and another $40 million a year in external effects like lodging and dining, according to Shipley.”When you talk to the economic director of Charlotte he’ll tell you that they . . . were a NASCAR and a banking town, and he’ll say, ‘Now, our number-one attraction is whitewater,” he says.
The company has also developed in-stream projects in Durango and Vail in Colorado. Shipley says the Durango Whitewater Park “has about a $9 million economic impact for that town and rejuvenating that whitewater park was a huge thing for them economically.”
S2O rethought whitewater park design and created the patented RapidBlocs system, which debuted at the London park for the 2012 Olympics. “When we got into designing the 2012 Olympic course, there was some pressure there to meet this objective of having that course be state-of-the-art 10 years into the future,” Shipley says. “So how do you forecast what it’s going to change to? That became the big question. What we came away with was you don’t you you create a course that can change with it.”
Previous designs of whitewater parks would only allow course setters to change about 2 percent of a course. Made by a U.K.-based manufacturer, RapidBlocs are rotomolded polyethylene blocks and shapes secured by standard, 18-millimeter bolts that allow for constant tweaks.
“This obstacle system we made allows you to completely reconfigure a course so that the Olympic course people raced on in 2012, they can go in and change where all the eddies are, and where all the waves are, where all the features are,” Shipley says. “So it allows the course to evolve with the sport. It has is tertiary benefit, you can tune it to exactly what you want. And also you can tune it down, you know later for people like rafters who are going to be want to come out and do easier whitewater.”
A seven- or eight-foot drop-off can be reconfigured into a minor rapid or eddy in less than a day with little more than a speed gun and different RapidBlocs. Shipley notes that if they’re in a water park and people keep having issues at the same feature, designers can quickly change the feature.
They’re now being used in every announced Olympic whitewater park. “They’re just being installed in Tokyo — we actually have a guy over there right now,” Shipley notes. “They have already been installed in what will be the Paris 2024 games course.”
The company also redevelops rivers and streams for flood mitigation projects or to reclaim riparian habitats and the wildlife in them. Shipley encourages communities to take a nature-based approach.
“The river restoration side is a lot of people calling up and saying we analyzed our river, it’s concrete on both banks. We shoved it into it a canal and it’s killing the fish and it’s killing the environment here,” he says. “We can do that restoration and bring the fishing back and bring back the the riparian habitat and at the same time tie that into a recreational master plan that allows for stream-side access.”
Customers often come to S2O with projects on existing dams; they want fish and recreational passage, but want to keep the dam. “That’s an ideal scenario for a whitewater park,” says Shipley. “We’ve got a couple of those were doing right now and they’re fantastic projects because if you’re solving a ton of problems.”
Shipley estimates that the company’s breakdown of projects is roughly about a third in each category: whitewater parks, in-stream whitewater parks, and flood and other river engineering. “That distribution changes from day to day. We’re doing a lot of public stuff right now, but at the same time actually we’re building a lot of in stream right now, and we’re designing a lot fun stuff. And so it really evolves from one to the next.”
S2O is evolving its approach to building whitewater parks to how people are recreating. That includes paddle boarding and river surfing. “We’re coming out with a bunch of new RapidBlocs designs that will allow us to put in standing surf waves for surfers on rivers,” says Shipley. “That’s been a big challenge for us and we’re spending a ton of money on that and doing a bunch of research on that kind of out of our own pockets. In this industry that’s never happened before.”
Challenges: “We are evolving in a way designed to match how the use of these parks changes,” says Shipley, noting that will include the development of new RapidBlocs offerings.
Opportunities: Growing the whitewater economy. “We’ve learned that the casual user will come and go rafting and go,” says Shipley. “But if you can create a resort experience around it, they’ll come, go rafting and then they will go to the restaurant and they’ll rent that cabana and they’ll start to try some of the other activities like zip-lining or climbing walls, and mountain biking, things like that. Then we draw them into an all-day experience which is all about healthy active outdoor lifestyles, and so for us, those are kind of two things that we’re really pushing.”
Needs: “There’s a really uncomfortable growth from 10 [employees] up,” Shipley says. “Right now, frankly, we’ve got so many projects that we kind of got our heads down on a bunch of this stuff and are just working away at it. I suspect when we get a little more breathing room, we’ll attempt to think about some of those things.”
Eagle completes nation’s newest, and ambitious, whitewater park
Randy Wyrick Vail Daily January 9, 2019
EAGLE — The river part of Eagle’s ambitious river park is done, and even the fish appear to be happy about it.
Hobbs Excavating crews recently finished the fourth of four in-river features.
S2O Design, one of the world’s premier river engineering and whitewater design companies, designed the in-river features.
“This setting matches the river’s natural morphology and utilizes the existing river channel really well,” said Scott Shipley, the founder and president of S2O Design. “It will surely be a new focal point for the town.”
Shipley knows what he’s touting. He’s a three-time U.S. Olympian and five-time World Cup slalom kayak champion.
The park has been on Eagle’s wish list for years, town Trustee Matt Solomon said.
“This will truly connect the soul of the river to the heart of our valley,” Solomon said.
Local boaters are checking the park daily to see if the ice has melted enough to get into the river.
“This park is going to make a huge, positive impact on Eagle as well as all the other nearby river corridor communities,” Ken Hoeve, former pro kayaker and standup paddler said. “The park is going to put Eagle on the map as a great paddling destination.”
FAST WATER AND FISH
The in-river part of the project took two years to build, but the process started long before that with a feasibility study, then design and a detailed hydraulic modeling. The first two features were built last winter and spring when the water was low.
Crews were back in the water last fall, and finished the other two river features in late December. The features create waves, eddies, chutes, and drops to play in for anything from tubes to surfing, standup-up paddling and kayaking.
The park was the first built with S2O’s RapidBlocs that allows the features to be fine-tuned depending on water flows. That will lengthen the boating season in the park.
“We’ll be able to tweak them however we need to,” Shipley said.
S2O also designed the riverbank improvements, and included a bypass channel around the two upper features serving as a recreational safe route and a fish migration pathway, and mid-stream fish channels in the lower section so fish can migrate upstream.
After Colorado Parks and Wildlife expressed some concerns about fish migration, the two features built this winter were modified, with crews installing concrete half hemispheres to make it easier for the fish to move.
WORKING WITH THE FEDS
Because the whitewater park was built in a river, the town had to work through the federal approval process with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and other groups.
“The knowledge and experience from all of these groups has made it a smooth project considering the extent of the undertaking,” said Jeremy Gross, Eagle’s marketing manager.
S2O Design is completing whitewater parks on the Poudre River in Fort Collins, on the Arkansas River in Canon City, and on the Boise River in Boise, Idaho.
In 2016 Eagle voters approved a 0.5 percent sales tax to pay for the park and trail improvements. The entire park is scheduled for completion later this spring.