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Editorial: Editorial: Spokane whitewater park would be worth the effort

The Spokane River is among Washington’s underemployed.

Sure, it generates electricity for Avista Utilities and the city of Spokane, and Riverside and Riverfront parks are wonderful amenities, but as a recreation resource the Spokane is not working up to its potential. A whitewater park like the one that just opened in Boise would enhance the opportunities for play, and ring cash registers, too.

The Friends of the Falls has worked since at least 2005 to get such a park built below the lower falls. Last month’s Spokane River Festival was that group’s bid to revive the plan, which submerged beneath a recessionary economy and concerns about possible harm to the river’s unique redband trout.

The fish are thought to spawn in the preferred site at the Sandifur pedestrian and bicycle bridge – a natural viewpoint for those who would enjoy watching kayakers and other park users. There’s also a small parking area, one that could be expanded and paved. Unfortunately, the delay in ascertaining the severity of the threat to the fish delayed progress enough that the state’s Recreation and Conservation Office in 2011 withdrew $500,000 in grant money supporting the project.

That money will not be coming back soon, if ever. That is particularly regrettable now that the long-envisioned Kendall Yards project is taking shape on the river’s north bank. The development’s target market, active urbanites who want to walk, bike or bus instead of drive, is a natural fit with the park.

A second site at Glover Field would move the park even closer to downtown, but with drawbacks. Access from the north bank would be precipitous, and traffic would disrupt Peaceful Valley on the south bank. Parking would eat up some of the limited open space. There are no natural water features like pilings or rocks to create the waves and holes that kayakers love, but there is plenty of river to work with for water park designers up to the challenge of river flows that vary from 1,200 cubic feet per second in August to 40,000 cfs in May.

The cost will depend on which site is available after an environmental study is completed, but $1 million would be very much the low-end estimate. The first phase of the Boise River park cost $3.5 million.

Spokane park backers had the construction money pretty much in hand until the state withdrew its funding. Putting together a second package will be a challenge, but new spending on gear, meals and lodging will return an estimated $1 million-plus to city merchants and hospitality operations.

A second benefit not much talked about is the potential to create an outdoor classroom where students could learn more about how rivers work and all river users could learn about safety. There are far too many drownings in area waters.

Despite the frustrations experienced so far, the effort to build a park should go forward, beginning with an environmental impact statement that can pin down the threats to trout and how they can be mitigated. The Boise park, not yet complete, was the result of a 12-year effort.

More work ahead, but more play, too.

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