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Building a Whitewater Park in the Desert?

Author(s): Rick Curtis
Posted: December 2, 2007

I saw a recent news article about the opening of a new whitewater park and community called WaveYard in, of all places, Mesa, Arizona. The town just voted Yes on 35 million in tax incentives to support the project. While I haven’t dug deeply into the whole political scene behind this, I think it is a great case study of how the outdoors is being turned into a manufactured commodity and the dangers that this poses in actually distancing people from the outdoors.

According to the WaveYard Web site it will have:

  • Artificial Whitewater course billed as the largest of its kind
  • The largest man-made Wave Pool for surfing & body surfing
  • A SCUBA lagoon
  • A Wake Boarding Park
  • An Indoor Water Park

Besides the water activities the will be Lost Canyon “the country’s first engineered Canyoneering and Coasteering experience. Designed for the adrenaline addicted, Lost Canyon will be about being outside, challenging yourself, and staring fear in the face.” There will also be a Ropes Course, Climbing Wall ,and a Via Ferrata Course. And of course, a resort hotel, conference center, retail shops, townhouses and office space.

I am amazed at the potential environmental impact on water resources in the desert. This thing is being built in Mesa, Arizona of all places. In part, according to the developer, because the folks there don’t have access to this type of water and he wants to ‘bring it to them.’ Here are some interesting stats from the City of Mesa weather. It is described as arid and gets less than 8 inches of rain a year.

City of mesa Weather

The water features at WaveYard are only going to use 50 million gallons of water at first to fill its artificial oceans and rivers and then another another 60 to 100 million gallons per year (enough to support about 1,200 people in the Phoenix area) to replenish water lost to evaporation and spillage (it is the desert after all) according to Chris Kahn a writer for the Associated Press Writer. On one of the news releases Waveyard states that “in comparison, a typical 18-hole golf course uses 144 million gallons per year” while that’s some water savings I’ve never been a fan of 18-hole golf courses in the desert either especially since Arizona has been in a drought for a decade, and rivers that feed Phoenix and surrounding communities have experienced near-record low measurements this year. This seems to me a lot like Ski Dubai, the indoor ski area in the middle of the desert in the United Arab Emirates with 22,500 square meters of snow year round. The fact that you can build something, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good idea.

It scares me a bit to see our society moving in this direction. At the same time there is the ‘No Child Left Inside‘ (USA Today) groundswell in secondary school education following books like Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” (NPR Audio). What WaveYard looks like to me is taking a video game and plunking it down in a shopping mall as a way of interacting with the outdoors. It’s definitely not the same as experiencing a real river, canyon, or ocean and I think that it is only going to further distance people from the outdoors. I mean, who actually will need the outdoors if you can just build it into your development and, as Joni Mitchell says in the 2007 re-release of her song Big Yellow Taxi, “charge the people an arm and a leg just to see it”? So where will the commitment be in the next generation to preserve the mountains, rivers, and oceans? While the town of Mesa voted and approved this project, I wonder what they’ll be thinking 15 years from now when western water is even more scarce than it is now. Let me know what you think.

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