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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

Engineering the Danger Out of Whitewater

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: outdoor recreation, whitewater rafting, rivers, paddle sports, legal liability, High Country News, environment, Keith Goetzman,

Rafting on the Nile in UgandaWhitewater rafting is a risky sport: Those aren’t plastic Disneyland-style boulders in the middle of the rapids, and your life vest may or may not save you if you go overboard. But proposals to make two Western rivers a bit safer by moving gnarly rocks has kicked off a debate about how far humans should go in engineering nature for recreation’s sake.

High Country News reports on controversial proposals to alter two dangerous whitewater rafting spots: Staircase Rapid on Idaho’s Payette River and Frog Rock Rapids on Colorado’s Arkansas River. Fifteen to 20 rafts wrap around a particular boulder on Staircase Rapid every season, writes Sarah Gilman, and a river guide drowned there in 2007; Frog Rock Rapids has claimed four victims since 2000. In both places, proposals to mess with the river have raised objections:

The discussion echoes my 2001 Utne Reader article, “The Late, Great Outdoors,” which covered the debate over completely human-made whitewater courses and faux rock climbing walls in urban environments. “Some feel that something is lost when the rapids are always just right and the view at the top of the climb is the checkout line,” I wrote. Reconfiguring natural rivers seems to be just another variation on this unnatural approach.

In a sense, the law may be on the river’s side. Experts suggest to High Country News that river modifications could backfire, since “if an agency alters a hazard like a rapid, even with the intent to make it safer, it could potentially be held liable for future accidents there.”

Dynamiting the falls? Now that sounds more dangerous than whitewater rafting.

Source: High Country News 

Image by Video4net, licensed under Creative Commons.