How to build a great whitewater park

Over the years there has been a growing trend to create whitewater parks around the world which is just great for our sport and I applaud those cities and communities that have embraced whitewater parks. With the ever ongoing issues of rivers being dammed for hydro electricity and our ever increasing thirst for water, whitewater is becoming harder to come by. The ability to have a whitewater park in the middle of a city allows our sport to continue to grow while providing a dynamic recreation facility for the community.


After paddling for all my life and competing in freestyle as an athlete for over a decade, I have been fortunate enough to paddle on many fantastic parks. There are so many positives to the community, there is a large variety of parks out there with different flows. After vising numerous different whitewater parks throughout my paddling career all over the world I feel I understand where some parks get it absolutely right. If you are a committee, council or project coordinator who might be considering creating a vibrant new whitewater park, I encourage you to consider the following before making that first step as a way to get everything you want in a whitewater park.

1. Choose the right whitewater park builder.
There are quite a few different builders that create good whitewater parks, there are however a few who actually create great water parks. After paddling all around the world on a bunch of different features it is very easy to tell who does a great job in this area. Choosing the right builder allows for a fantastic facility that takes into consideration all facets of whitewater.

2. Make sure you get what you ask for.
I have seen parks and facilities that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars creating facilities that don’t hit on what they wanted, whereas other parks who spend the time with the community to understand what they want build parks that nails the brief. Sometimes throwing money at one feature will not always guarantee having one fantastic feature.

3. Size is just not important.
I know what you are saying, hang on Jez, size is always important and anyone who says differently has issues with size themselves. Ok, after all the puns are done with, on a serious note, usually those creating parks feel like they need to go big and create the biggest park which will inevitably lead to people calling it the best park and the best play features. I can honestly say that size is not as important as quality. A few whitewater parks that have been built over the last few years have gone with the bigger is best theory and have created parks that are massive with no quality play features at all, normally they also have abrupt edges that become a safety concern. In my eyes quality is way more important than quantity.

4. Consider consulting a playboater if you are trying to build a great play feature.
For goodness sake, if you are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a park and as with most parks a primary reason is to create a ‘world class play feature’, take the time to consult a world class playboater. I see all too often engineers and hydrologists spending hundreds of thousands of dollars creating graphs, diagrams, flow charts and models only to find that after building the feature the result is one fantastic body recirculating hole. A fantastic epic fail that places strains on the community to come up with more money to fix the problem. Please, please, please consider talking to someone who actually spends their life on freestyle features. It is not hard. If you want to create a great slalom course then consult a current slalom paddler. Freestyle moves have changed over time, so has the difficulty of slalom courses, it is important to stay on trend with these features and courses. Most parks are after that infamous great freestyle feature which I can honestly say is very difficult to create. If you are considering building a park with a good freestyle feature you really should consider this point. Just like if I was attempting to build a BMX track I would not go to a world class sprint cycle racer to build my track. Consult those who spend their life in that discipline.

5. Trial and error
Water is inherently dynamic, fluid, forever moving. It is impossible to predict what water is going to do on a computer, on a diagram or even in a model. Instead you need to factor in what I call the trial and error process. Consider using removable bollards so that you can change the feature, tweak the feature or the ability to totally change the feature with minimal effort and no finances to change it. You do not need to spend millions on features with hydraulic floors or baffles, instead consider how you can change the features and sides of the river bed with minimal effort. A few man made features on natural rivers were built without the ability to change it at all, therefore you have wait for the exact right river flow for it to work or be a great freestyle feature. Waiting a year for the feature to be ‘in’ and paddleable is a big risk and a produces negative feedback. Instead, why not create numerous different features across the river width so that something is always working at any level. Lower levels are great for smaller holes, most spend all their money at creating the best man made wave however the result is normally far from perfect. Being able to test, trial, tweak and perfect your feature is super important.

6. Consider what is upstream and downstream
If there is a slight change to the river up stream or down stream, this will have a huge effect on the feature. I know from my home facility in Australia that if the water level at the bottom changes slightly, this has an effect on every feature all the way throughout the course. If we change only one removable bollard two features upstream, this will have a huge effect on our play features. Therefore allow for the ability to slow or speed up the water above and below the feature as well as allow for the water to be directed in slightly different directions to give your desired effect.

7. Add shallow areas to allow clients to get out of your parks
Certain builders are creating vertical concrete walls that are almost impossible for clients, rafters and kayakers to get out of the water. I watch at some parks in amazement as guides who are placed on rescue for these parks struggle to get larger built clients out of the water as the concrete walls are almost vertical and so abrasive that it grinds any skin that comes in contact with. Here is a very simple solution, place some textured rubber matting around the edges of these eddies and allow the walls to gradually rise above the waterline instead of creating straight walls. Clients bring finances and if they are going home broken, battered or torn then this feedback will follow your facility.

8. Have an area specifically for rescue training
Swiftwater rescue training is one of the best ways to double your income in your park, you need to consider this facet. All rescue operators have a component of swiftwater rescue and I have been a part of numerous courses. Consider having an area you can swim inexperienced rescue operatives, set up high lines and crossings. By doing this you will involve the services that help the community, gain some great exposure about what you are doing as well as provide valuable income to the facility. Make sure there are no foot hazards at all around this area and consider a way of diverting water or dropping water to allow for different extraction training and crossings. Consider having this in an area away from freestyle and slalom features so all can work coherently.

9. Gee this park is shallow
A common concern for users of whitewater parks is how shallow it is in parts. This is a normal part of parks and unless you have very large flows you are going to have areas that are shallow. Think about a river and how many places rocks are visible in the middle of rivers. There are always going to be places that are shallow. It’s just it feels shallow as there usually is no large deep eddies created in parks as you will need high amounts of water to create this. A concern is that some builders create concrete pillars and rises directly vertical meaning that if a client has their foot down they are going to smash it on that block of concrete. Consider using a gradual rise instead. It’s how the natural rivers work after all.

10. Landscaping
If you are considering building a park, consider adding landcape around the edges using local rocks to give it that appearance that the park is just part of the river. Building a seamless line between the new park and the river is a challenge that if done right will give the park the feeling that nature created these features.

11. Money is not everything.
You do not need to spend the communities life savings to create a whitewater feature. Sure if you want something that is grand and extravagant then expect to pay around the $40 million mark, however if you just want to have a feature that is on a river that already exists this figure drops significantly. A great example of how to create a fantastic whitewater feature is the Pigeon river where raft guides move rocks by hand to create one of the best freestyle features in the world. Some of the better features are the ones where the community and whitewater park builder thinks smart about how they move on a project.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about this subject, I am only more than happy to answer and help you out if you are looking into this type of project.

Now with all this said and done, I do applaud those cities and communities that rally behind proposals and build parks in their home towns. There are so many positives to a park that include tourism and finances generated, to promoting a healthy outdoor lifestyle to locals and getting your park dialled in will change your town dramatically for the better. It would be amazing if more whitewater parks, features and facilities were created and our little sport that has changed so many of our lives could be brought to the next generation of paddlers.

Thanks for listening and I hope to see you out there on a new, crisp man made wave soon.

Comments on “How to build a great whitewater park”

  1. January 30, 2017 at 2:33 am

    Hey Jez.. interesting article… I am the Ops Manager for Raging Thunder in Cairns Qld.. we are in the process of building a facility to cater to the almost 50,000 customers we get Rafting, Skydiving etc in the Tully area.. part of my vision for the facility is a function area built around a large pool/pond/dam where there will be other adventure activities such as climbing walls, ropes courses etc..a possibility which would be super cool would be just a play wave to do training, demos, activity type things on.. we don’t need a course as we have the Tully River close.. just a small play are.. is this sought of thing plausible?.. thanks for any feedback…

  2. Eric Van Leer
    November 2, 2017 at 12:19 am

    Interesting read. It reminded me of going to the national Whitewater Center in South Carolina, With its vertical concrete walls and features that are easy to break a paddle on and get bruised on as I found out firsthand. I’m curious do you have an opinion on what’s the minimum CFS to create a small freestyle play hole? We have permission on a local public water supply damn release creek that averages between 50 and 100 cfs but we found a spot that funnels the entire flow into a slot about 16 to 18 ft wide. Low budget DIY project with a back hoe and few paddlers.

  3. fahad
    November 24, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    hi jez
    I’m thinking of building a water park or maybe you can call it indoor kayaking
    i have no experience in kayaking or indoor kayaking and i was looking for a professional company to do a full study abut it and to know if it’s going to get the people attention in my country (qatar) specially with the country hosting the 2022 football word cup.
    and i’m thinking to do a full water park so if the kayaking didn’t pay of and you seem the pest gay to ask.
    and if you are or you know a businessman willing to join me ass a partner or to work for these company or if you have any other suggestions i will be grateful,
    and to be honest my goal is profit.


  4. March 4, 2019 at 10:47 pm

    hi jez,
    Currently i am doing Master plan for the whitewater and searching for the designer and builder. Can you list out or suggest any designer and builder that i contact with.

    Thank you

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