Dam maintenance project could include creation of plaza and kayaking area along Kansas River

photo by: Ashley Hocking

The proposed site for a Kansas River recreation area is located on the south bank of the river, shown here on Nov. 9, 2018.

The portion of the Kansas River that borders downtown Lawrence is largely walled off from would-be visitors, but that could soon change if the city decides to move forward with a new river recreation and whitewater area.

The city of Lawrence budgeted $2 million this year to repair the Kansas River dam and address erosion of the riverbank south of the dam. The city owns the land under Abe & Jake’s Landing and the adjacent Riverfront Plaza building, where the riverbank needs to be stabilized. Instead of rebuilding the existing retaining wall, one potential concept would stabilize the bank by building a terraced stone plaza that creates river entry points and extends slightly into the river and helps create pools and whitewater for kayaking and other water activities.

Plans for the potential recreational area are only conceptual, but city staff members said that since the city needs to make the other repairs, they want to provide the option for consideration.

Brandon McGuire, assistant to the city manager, said that the repairs to the dam, which will involve filling multiple holes and caverns, require a temporary dam or other mechanism be built to divert the river and dry out the area where work needs to be done. McGuire said the city is asking potential general contractors for the most economical way to address both the dam and riverbank stabilization projects at the same time, and potentially integrate the recreational concept.

“If there’s a possibility that we could have an opportunity to do something that provides a greater value to the community than a straight maintenance project, then we want to be able to provide that option,” McGuire said. “But then there’d be a lot of work I think that needs to go into next steps and actually designing and spec’ing out that type of a facility, and none of that has happened yet.”

McGuire said staff would look to city commissioners for guidance on whether they’d like to proceed on the recreational idea, and exactly what the design would be and what uses it would target.

River access

Regarding how the idea came about, McGuire said multiple groups have communicated with the city about improving river access as part of the maintenance projects, including the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. Other groups part of the discussion include the Bowersock Mills & Power Company and Friends of the Kaw.

Friends of the Kaw is supportive of the concept, and Dawn Buehler, a riverkeeper with the group, said the main reason is the desire to create better access to the river for the public. She said she thinks creating seating and entry points to the river at this location in particular is important because of its proximity to downtown, and that the project could improve an area that is currently underutilized.

“Nobody ever sits out there, and it just feels like there is an opportunity for people to be connected back to the river,” Buehler said. “It’s an idea that we hope that Lawrence will see the value in.”

The city has $1 million budgeted in 2018 to repair the holes in the dam and another $1 million to stabilize the riverbank. The city does not have any additional money budgeted toward a recreational aspect, but some of the project could potentially be funded by grants.

Aaron Deters, regional wildlife supervisor for the KDWPT, said that aspects of a project that improve water access for fishing or for paddlers by adding entry and exit points could qualify for grants from the U.S. Coast Guard. Deters said if the project were to receive a grant from the coast guard, it would fund half the access improvements and that the state would potentially contribute funding toward a match for the grant. He said the state also has other grants that help fund improved access for fishing.

photo by: Ashley Hocking

The proposed site for a Kansas River recreation area is located on the south bank of the river, shown here on Nov. 9, 2018.

Maintaining the dam

Since the 1970s, the city has legally been responsible for the maintenance of the dam, which is a key part of the city’s water supply system. The city recently put out a request for proposals for the project to repair holes in the dam, and the request notes the erosion problems and that the city has had discussions with KDWPT about potential recreational opportunities on the downstream side of the dam. The request for proposals states that additional consideration may be given to the contractor that could integrate fixes to the erosion problems and incorporate a recreational area.

Sarah Hill-Nelson, co-owner of the Bowersock Mills & Power Company, said she recognizes that the buildings Bowersock has along the river are an impediment to river access, and that the company feels committed to improving that. Hill-Nelson said if the recreational area were to go forward, it would need to be designed so it doesn’t significantly impact the dam’s power production, and Bowersock would need to make sure it was protected liability-wise. However, she said she sees the recreation area as an important community amenity, and she thinks the city should take advantage of having the river diverted, because creating a temporary dam to make repairs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“On the whole, we think it could be an incredible asset for the city of Lawrence,” Hill-Nelson said. “We think that as long as the city is going to get in the river and do repair work, we think that we should be as strategic as possible.”

The draft concept


The draft concept sketch provided in the city’s request for proposals includes a stone terrace along an approximately 200-foot portion of the bank and a stone divider structure about 100 feet away from the bank. The stone terrace and divider create two pools and two whitewater features near the south bank of the river. A new trail transverses the terrace, and the trail connects to a boat ramp and a possible elevated trail option above the river.

Recreation Engineering & Planning, based in Boulder, Colo., created the draft concept sketch. REP engineer and president Gary Lacy said the concept is similar to what many communities have been creating around the country. Lacy said the whitewater, which is described as not intimidating, is created by water flowing over a slight drop in elevation between the pools. He said the drops are typically about 1.5 feet and the whitewater features can be used by everybody, including kayakers, standup boards, tubers and inflatable crafts. He said the terraces are typically built using flat blocks of limestone, creating a space for gathering or sitting.

McGuire said the city has not developed cost estimates for a potential kayaking and rapids facility. He said such facilities can range in scope, size and complexity, so a number of design variables would need to be defined before cost estimates could be developed. He said the City Commission would also need an opportunity to consider the project within the broader context of the budget and provide direction before the staff would proceed with a design effort.

Proposals for the repairs to the dam were due Nov. 6, and McGuire said the city will be reviewing the submitted proposals in coming weeks. The proposals will go to the City Commission for consideration at a later date.


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