Should Raleigh build a whitewater park on the Neuse?

March 8, 2010 

Every Monday, Matthew Eisley faces off against a guest columnist on a topical issue. This week's topic: a proposed whitewater park on the Neuse River. Today's guest is Alissa Bierma, the Upper Neuse riverkeeper. First up, Eisley.

Build a nifty public park

Nothing is gained without a cost, and surely the Neuse River is a treasured public resource we owe it to ourselves to protect.

But, really, would some more rocks and kayaks kill it? A proposal to build a small whitewater park just below Falls Lake's dam strikes me as reasonable and worthwhile.

If you've driven the Falls of Neuse bridge over the river, you can see why kayakers, fishers and other outdoor enthusiasts love the spot.

Except when Falls Lake is low and its discharge light, there's a significant series of rapids just downstream of the dam.

A committee of paddlers, local residents and city and county officials is preparing a plan to add natural or artificial boulders and possibly divert the river's flow somewhat from one side of an island there to the other to gain speed.

The idea is to improve a bit upon nature for the benefit of good people who love it.

Some consider this heresy. They disapprove of any alteration to the natural environment.

Like, say, the dam looming overhead, or the lake behind it. Or the condos in the mill building constructed on the river's bank to make human use of its hydropower. Or the paved state road that gets you there. Or state parks. Or houses.

Kayaking and other forms of recreation promote public appreciation of the natural world. Up to a debatable point, the more people who enjoy nature, the more who'll defend it.

So it's good policy to have public beaches, a Blue Ridge Parkway and greenway trails.

Creating a way at a reasonable cost, with minimal damage, to make the most of an amenity like the Neuse River is a smart idea.

Let's hope it won't have to swim upstream.

Matthew Eisley edits The N&O's North Raleigh News and Midtown Raleigh News.

Don't mess with perfection

I'm all for bringing people to the Neuse River, but why do we have to change perfection to have them appreciate it more?

Having engineers in my river always concerns me - not because I dislike them but because they tend to ask how we can do something, not if we can do it. In this case, I think we should really be asking if we should put a whitewater park below Falls Dam.

The Neuse River Foundation's primary concern is making sure that the river is protected, and we will work to make sure that every environmental consideration and impact study is undertaken before a decision is made.

We already have problems with muddy water in the Neuse because of erosion caused by development. Increasing the swiftness of the water in that stretch risks damaging sensitive ecosystems and harming the places where people bird watch and fish.

In addition, the construction itself will be expensive and highly destructive. Preliminary plans are to install permanent concrete "rocks," but the southern river channel would have to be dried out to do that, and it would take a long time for the area to heal itself.

Plus, to get a significant benefit from this project, water probably would be diverted from the river's wider northern section where lots of good bugs support a vibrant ecosystem.

Many people use that part of the river for fishing, swimming, hiking, boating and, when the water is up, even whitewater kayaking.

Changing the area to support different recreational uses because of the desires of a vocal minority is not something for which I have seen good justification, nor have I seen support for the project from the broader community.

Alissa Bierma is the Upper Neuse riverkeeper.

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