White Water Courses. Rethinking Concrete

Cardiff International White Water

Cardiff International White Water

Water water everywhere… Or not.

In the UK, unlike many other parts of the world, we don’t really have a set white water boating season. Our rivers are rain dependent and so given enough water they can be paddled at any time of the year. Unfortunately even in the winter water can be sparse, and many paddlers will be familiar with having to find a safe weir somewhere or to go to one of the small number of artificial white water courses dotted around the country.

Mixed Feelings

I have mixed feelings about artificial white water courses. On the one hand I spend a lot of time at the Cardiff International White Water course, and I really like it. In the summer it is a fantastic place with a friendly vibe, a great shop, a cafe you can go into with your wet kit on, and friendly staff. There’s a one off payment, currently £12.50 for the entire day, and no prerequisite to have to take an assessment course before going on it like you have to at Lee Valley. Because there is a great kayak shop there it is also a great place to be able to demo different boats in the same white water conditions.

But there is an intrinsic problem with many of these concrete courses. One of the main ones being that they are often crowded and a concrete channel isn’t the most inspiring place to be on a dull grey and wet day. Furthermore they are expensive to run. The cost of running the pumps means that they are reliant on stag and hen dos and many of the other activities available to keep the course going. These pumps are also prone to causing unnatural surging in the way that the water behaves. From a personal point of view it is also a fair drive away, as are all of the main white water centres. The central Midlands for example could well do with a course of its own since the cost of the petrol to travel to such places regularly soon adds up, and this doesn’t do much for the idea of minimising pollution either. I’m sure that many other white water paddlers are in a similar predicament.

I can’t help but feel that there must be another way that could create more accessible white water for many more boaters, as well as enhancing the white water environment with trees, grass, log cabin style cafes, and other more aesthetically pleasing features.

What is the alternative?

With those factors in mind what are the alternatives to a pumped course? Some may say that Tryweryn is possibly the best example of an artificial course, along with the Washburn. However such courses require a river with an already decent gradient, and a reliable water supply. Tryweryn is at the mercy of dam release schedules, and while it is a stellar example of what can be done, the reality is that it was a white water river before it was enhanced with the addition of carefully placed rocks.

One of the best alternatives to a pumped course is a river diversion. Holme Pierrepont (HPP) in Nottingham is the best known example of this in the UK. Cardington is another, if rather less powerful example. HPP is a lengthy white water course, with some sizeable features and quite a bit of power behind it. It is created by a flow diversion off the River Trent. It is a great venue, although it has a few drawbacks. The first is that, once again, it is depressingly industrial to look at. It is quite unforgiving for the inexperienced and swims can be lengthy with a risk of losing kit to the main river if not picked up in a timely manner. The walk back to the top is long, there is no real “vibe” to the place, no cafe for spectators to watch from a balcony from, no permanent rescue staff (groups are responsible for themselves), and the water quality can be dubious.

As a result HPP is not great for novices, or for intermediates who may have some time to practice on their own. That said HPP is a good starting point. In my idealised mind I would like to see a course similar to HPP with a dammed pool at the top and bottom to allow the installation of a conveyor to ride back up to the top.

Natural gradients

Sometimes the natural gradient of a river can be utilised to add white water features. With the exception of Tryweryn, which was a powerful fast moving river to begin with, Symonds Yat and Matlock are perhaps the best examples in the UK where a very low grade river has had man made constrictions put in place to create a short white water rapid. Matlock is fairly benign, while Symonds Yat can have some power behind it at high flows. Although the redevelopment of the rapids there a few years back was undone by flooding. When the rapids were remodelled permission to concrete in the groynes was refused, and so the rocks that were put in place to create the rapids had to support themselves. The result? A lot of time and money down the drain. Symonds Yat still has rapids that are good for practice occasionally, but they wash out very quickly and there are now no defined features or play waves there other than a set of eddies.

This is a great shame because Symonds Yat does have a lot of potential for development. It is a beautiful location, and it is quite wonderful to play about there on a hot summers day or evening. But pressure from the various quarters has meant that any corrections to the initial work that got ruined are going to take a very long time to sort out, both bureaucratically and money wise.

In the UK we really need to have a similar lightbulb moment to our cousins in the USA. Dotted around our rivers are many weirs. Such navigational obstructions are often dangerous, not just to boaters, but to swimmers and to anyone who works near them such as Environmental Agency workers, conservationists and the like. While safety railings are often put in place, it would be a much more productive and aesthetically pleasing to utilise the gradients offered by weirs and to construct natural looking white water in the weir channels. Long gradients such as Powick weir on the Teme and Diglis weir on the Severn offer a good amount of height for such projects.

There is one big sticking point to such schemes in the UK. Angling clubs. Already a scheme to make a short course in Pershore initially had vehement opposition from the local angling clubs, although thankfully common sense prevailed and the project is now going ahead, with EPD providing the design. Areas like the Teme have a very loud and aggressive angling fraternity who do not want anything that they even remotely perceive as getting in the way of their hobby.

This is a great shame. In the US the companies who construct such short white water courses are used to dealing with local concerns from residents and from other river users. Such white water courses in fact help to improve the fish populations with more aerated water and much freer passage upstream. Passage that would otherwise be restricted by the weirs and locks. They are also a lot safer for anyone who may accidentally fall in from the bank, with no dangerous underwater scouring or dangerous recirculating water that has caused many a drowning tragedy over the years. Put simply it should be of great interest to the powers that be, local authorities and the Environment Agency, to redevelop such weirs into safe places where recreation can be enjoyed and the dangers to life from traditional weirs eliminated.

From a human perspective such courses open up the river to get people enjoying the outdoors and where towns are concerned they can revitalise an area bringing in much needed tourism and business trade. In fact the draw of visitors is one of the primary reasons why the town of Pershore is so keen on building such a course there.

There are caveats that have to be taken into consideration during such developments, but these are generally considerations for engineering rather than project killers. For example the way that sediment is deposited, how the different flows affect the banks both down stream and upstream of the course, and of course other wildlife habitats. With that said the US experience of such schemes has been a positive one, with noticeable increases in water quality below the new whitewater courses, as well as increased and healthier fish populations. Companies such as Recreation Engineering & Paddling are well versed in allaying fears from angling groups. The sheer number of completed projects shows how successful such schemes can be. They have even put together a study on the effects of whitewater courses on fish populations, with a much greater understanding now available to them since it was written in 2004. The most curious thing is that many of the measures taken to restore streams and rivers to enhance fish populations are very similar to those that are required to create interesting white water features for canoeists and kayakers.

With many of the features on a course being beneficial to the fish, features such as carefully placed underwater pipe entrances can give the creatures places to hide while boats pass over, encouraging them to stay in the area. Although we know from other rivers that fish do in fact become used to the presence of boats very quickly.

Back to the pumps

It might be that there is a great area for a course, but it may not be ideal to fully convert a weir or the risk of bank erosion or flooding is too great for whatever reasons. Pumps are expensive to run, we know that much. However shorter courses, such as the Pinkston centre in Glasgow are in fact fairly low cost due to the shortness of the course. Natural gradient from weirs could still be utilised. If a white water course was built in a segregated area perhaps the river flow from the weir could use hydro power to help generate the electricity for the pumps in combination with both solar and maybe wind. At the very least it could reduce cost of running overheads.

Where now?

A lot will depend on local groups and clubs getting together to progress such schemes. Both the Pershore scheme and the pumped Glasgow scheme were the brainchild of either an individual or a small group/club. Many local authorities may not be aware of the possibilities and most probably have never even thought of a white water course, let alone redeveloping weir channels both for safety and the revitalisation of an area in one throw. So it is up to communities and groups to start the ball rolling, and with the information available out there as to the benefits, as well as the number of experienced companies who build such schemes, there really isn’t an excuse not to start pushing!

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