Turn on the Tap
U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C.
By Steve London
Mecklenburg County owns the heavily wooded property along the scenic Catawba River and could enjoy an economic benefit reaching tens of millions of dollars. There is something for just about everyone interested in outdoor activities, particularly those involving water. A boathouse on the river provides access to five miles of flat water for sculling, canoeing, fishing and competitive events. Elsewhere in the development, guests can use the 20,000-square-foot Visitor Center, camping facilities, roping bridges, a 60-foot climbing wall and 11 miles of mountain bike and running trails in the park that add diversity to the USNWC's roiling waters.
A $35-million Mecca for water enthusiasts and groups searching for a different kind of outdoor experience, USNWC is projected to draw from 300,000 to 500,000 visitors a year—generating a cash flow of at least $11 million annually.
"We hope to operate in the black from the very beginning and to pay back our loans in 10 years," said Lance Kinerk, marketing chief of USNWC. "Some 470 locations were considered before selecting this site outside of Charlotte. The market area offers 7.1 million people within 100 miles of our facility."
There are a surprising number of challenging rivers in the Southeast. USNWC equates to the whitewater normally experienced along the natural rivers of the Southern Piedmont.
"Few people realize that the Southeast accounts for over one-third of all whitewater rafting trips in the country every year," Kinerk said. "Our region is the hotbed for these sports because of the concentration of rivers with varying degrees of difficulty."
USNWC's 5- to 6-foot-deep channels range in difficulty from a few novice stretches of Class I and II flows to predominantly Class III and even Class IV rapids that will challenge even the Olympic contenders who are expected to train here.
The 3,700 linear feet at USNWC dwarf the 1,200-foot-long stretch of waters at the Penrith Whitewater Stadium built for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The Australian facility has become a profitable recreational venture.
USNWC also expects to be self-supporting from those who plunk down up to $25 for day passes (less for those who bring their own craft). Four-, six- and eight-person rafts will run down the manmade river in 15 minutes, making the outing ideal for church groups, scouting troops and families. The channels, open to canoes and kayaks, are watched over by a legion of "river guards" and are skirted by numerous restful eddies. A 200-foot incline conveyor system gently shuttles guests and craft back up from a finishing pool to the headwaters for another run.
Several years before breaking ground, a group of Charlotte businessmen lured Jeff Wise with the concept of building a waterpark. An attorney, startup entrepreneur and kayak enthusiast, Wise immediately shared their vision. He mortgaged his home and devoted two years without a paycheck to launch the venture. He now serves as the executive director of the nonprofit entity established to own and manage the facility.
"We're not selling kayaking," he said recently. "We're selling a lifestyle."
To make USNWC a reality, Wise hired Liquid Design, a specialty design outgrowth of a local architectural firm. Comprised of other seasoned outdoor sportsmen, they applied their extensive experience in designing recreational projects to shape the overall park.
The design and construction team sculpted some 350,000 cubic yards of red clay into access roads, parking, retention ponds, building pads and the concrete-lined water channels with welded PVC liners.
Wise praised the result as "an incredible feat of design and engineering."
Former world-champion kayaker and three-time Olympian Scott Shipley was brought aboard as the lead fluid engineer. With a master's degree in mechanical engineering to complement his competitive credentials, Shipley was presented with a dream opportunity to design a truly world-class facility that could inspire construction of many others and broaden the market.
With breathtaking twists and bends, the whitewater channels drop 21 feet in elevation and can be modified to diverse levels of challenge.
USNWC's 1,670-foot-long Wilderness Channel offers limited Class I and II water for beginners. The Freestyle Channel extends 1,460 feet and flows through Class II and III rapids before converging at the same pool. The Bump 'n Run Channel runs 1,170 feet and gives rafters a bouncy drenching in sustained Class III and IV turbulent water highlighted by a 7-foot wave.
Shipley's favorite, of course, is the Competition Channel that will draw Olympic and World Cup athletes to train and possibly compete here. This 1,370-foot stretch of roiling whitewater rushes through Class III and IV rapids strewn with truck-size boulders. Guests at an overlooking restaurant-lodge can take it all in below, and natural banked seating is in place for spectator events.
Although the Catawba River is nearby, it was more practical to operate the park with recirculated water supplied by the City of Charlotte utility—14 million gallons of it. It is continuously treated and filtered to a high-quality level.
"If you're going to get wet, this is the place," Shipley quipped. "The beauty of these popular parks is that they can pay for themselves. We laid it out in four segments to offer something for everyone."
The flows range from 200 CFS (cubit feet/second) in the beginner channel to 500 CFS through the intermediate and up to 700 CFS in the most challenging course. Operators remotely monitor the series of pumps using a SCADA system and computer. They can regulate and divert the flow independently in each channel from a control tower using an inflatable headgate.
The structure overlooks the concrete pumphouse housing seven powerful ITT Flygt submersible pumps, which keep the park's lifeblood flowing through the channels. Brown & Morrison, a local manufacturer representative, simultaneously monitors the units off-site via the Internet. Each of the powerful pumps could fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in less than a minute.
The pumps operate simultaneously to recirculate more than 500,000 gallons per minute. Because each pump requires a high electricity load, a new electric substation was required for the park.
The entire volume of water in the park is processed and filtered every 24 hours. The filter system can remove collected particulate as small as 10 microns in size. Filtered water is subjected to ultraviolet disinfection treatment and is then transferred to the headwater pool.
Provisions in the design, as well as the modular nature of the disc filter system, allow for another pump and filter to be installed easily in the future.
When the park is closed, the sound of rushing water fills the night air. Soon after opening, however, the banks are filled not only with roiling water but the screams of guests carried down the world's largest manmade stretches of whitewater.
"It was a whole lot of fun building it, and it's going to be a whole lot more fun watching people come out in it," Wise said.