FAYETTEVILLE — The city’s first drinking water source has become a dilapidated dam and natural area afflicted with garbage, serving as a detriment to water quality, conservation officials say.
It could become a haven for kayakers, stand-up paddlers, floaters and toe-dippers.
The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board last week expressed its support for an ambitious project to tear out the Pump Station dam, restore the West Fork of the White River and put in a paddle park. The Watershed Conservation Resource Center, Arkansas Canoe Club and Beaver Watershed Alliance teamed up for the effort.
The nonprofit resource center, operating out of Fayetteville, helps municipalities and other groups with planning and technical services for water protection, conservation and restoration.
The Pump Station dam, in between the White River and Combs parks, on the West Fork of the White River needs to go, officials say. The city has owned it and the west side of the river bank for more than 100 years. The small reservoir was last used as a drinking water source in 1959. The parks, dam and West Fork of the White River lie east of South Armstrong Avenue, next to the Commerce District in south Fayetteville.
The Pump Station dam is not considered a high-hazard dam, meaning failure could cause some flooding and erosion with no significant risk to life, City Engineer Chris Brown said. It does not control flooding.
Principals with the Watershed Conservation Resource Center attribute a number of environmental and water quality issues to the dam. The area suffers from sediment and nutrient pollution, severe stream-bank erosion, algae growth from stagnant water and the prevention of upstream fish migration.
Safety is also a concern, said Matt Van Eps with the resource center. It’s not a huge dam, but it still has a potential for failure. Plus, graffiti at the pump station house and trash everywhere doesn’t look great, he said.
“This has the potential to be a real gem for the city, but right now it’s just real prone to misuse and disuse,” he said. “I’ve been there dozens of times for various reasons, and there’s no shortage of garbage and trash and obvious signs of misuse.”
Taking out the dam is the easy part. Someone will have to restore the flow and the breadth of about 8,000 linear feet of water and prevent further erosion of the stream bank. Then, the fun can begin with seasonal whitewater features, takeouts for canoeing and other water sports, fishing and connections to a multi-use trail.
The price tag on all that runs about $5 million, said Sandi Formica, director of the Watershed Center.
“Without the river restoration, it’s really not going to be beautiful and you’re not going to get those water quality benefits, which is going to more than likely be the source of funding for this,” she said.
A number of federal grants, focusing on improving water quality and preserving natural habitats, are available to help cover the cost, Formica said. The center studied the watershed for a number of years as part of a larger effort to restore the West Fork of the White River, before the paddle park idea came along.
The center also is one of three groups working with Bentonville to plan the redevelopment of Bella Vista Lake Park, where a dam failed. Those plans will include what types of amenities, such as paddle boarding, canoeing and fishing, should be featured at the park.
The Arkansas Canoe Club spent $10,000 on a feasibility study to establish a paddle park. The club envisioned something similar to the Si-loam Springs Kayak Park, which opened in 2014.
The exact economic impact is hard to measure, but the return on investment has been positive, said Jon Boles, Siloam Springs Parks and Recreation manager. The park is significantly smaller, about 600 linear feet and a $2.5 million startup cost, than what’s envisioned for Fayetteville. Siloam received a $2 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
Creating the park enabled access to the Illinois River for people of all ages, Boles said.
“Sometimes there’s not enough space out there to enjoy because it’s full,” he said. “But that’s a good problem. It could be a larger park and still be just as busy.”
Picking up trash and catching debris from the river can be labor-intensive, but volunteers and members of the Arkansas Canoe Club make the task manageable, Boles said. Managing the park itself is just like any other park in the city.
Steve Runnels with the Arkansas Canoe Club told the Fayetteville parks board that a well-engineered park requires little water maintenance. Runnels played a key role in developing and maintaining the Siloam Springs park.
“The park stops at the water’s edge. So, there is zero maintenance on the park in the river,” he said. “The way it’s designed and the way it’s done, we’ve gone back in one time and tweaked some rocks around to make it look better. Other than that, it’s self-cleansing.”
Organized river access can also meet the requirements for a national water trail, Runnels said. The federal government designates and promotes the recreational water routes, and a 6-mile-long float from a starting point upstream at the municipal airport would be possible. Other access points could expand the water trail routes.
Aside from the environmental and recreational benefits, taking out the dam and putting in a free-flowing park would serve as an asset to the city’s firefighters, Chief David Dayringer said.
The Fire Department’s six-story training tower opened in June right next to Combs Park. Firefighters will occasionally use the dormant water to train, Dayringer said.
“There are some things we can do, but it’s limited because it’s not swift water,” he said.
Firefighters have to go other places, such as the Mulberry or King rivers, for proper swift-water training, Dayringer said. Although swift water on the West Fork would be seasonal, it still would cut down on travel for firefighters. Plus, there would always be water of some kind there.
The department made 38 water rescues in a 24-hour period when severe flooding hit Northwest Arkansas in April, Dayringer said.
“We do it often enough to where we need to practice,” he said.
Seeking grants to make the project possible will be the next hurdle. The city would have some sort of matching requirement. Also, the east side of the river bank is privately owned and something would have to be worked out.
Nothing is set in stone, said Connie Edmonston, Parks and Recreation director.
“A lot of cities are doing the outdoor recreation thing. It is kind of the trend right now, and I think it’s a good time to hop onto it,” she said. “Funding will be one of the issues, but I think we need to look out to the community and see if they’re ready for it.”
• 8,000 feet of river restoration (includes removal of dam).
• Part of a future regional water trail.
• Seasonal whitewater feature for kayaks.
• Canoeing and other water sports with multiple take-outs.
• Multi-use trail (connection to future Razorback Greenway).
• Smallmouth bass and other fishing.
• River restoration — $3.5 million
• Whitewater feature and restored historic buildings — $1.5 million
Total — $5 million
Source: Watershed Conservation
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