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Oklahoma kayak park is awaiting approval from Army Corps

A planned water park near the Arkansas-Oklahoma line would please local paddlers, attract tourists and give an economic boost to nearby communities, supporters say.

The whitewater park is in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitting process, a corps spokesman said.

The Walton Family Foundation is involved with project on the Illinois River near Watts, Okla., about 6 miles from Siloam Springs.

The Grand River Dam Authority would own and operate the park, said Justin Alberty with the authority.

"A whitewater park would provide residents of northeast Oklahoma and Northwest Arkansas with a national-caliber quality of life amenity that also has the potential to attract visitors. Improving access to the river's natural scenic beauty would also give the community a vested interest in water quality," according to a statement from the foundation.

Activities would be focused on kayaking, surfing, stand-up paddle boarding and rafting, according to documents from the corps' Tulsa, Okla., District Office.

Kirk Robinson of Fayetteville has visited the Siloam Springs Kayak Park many times. He has been a kayaker for more than 20 years. He said he heard rumblings about the Oklahoma park and would check it out.

"In the Siloam park, you can only do so much," he said. "Something bigger would give more options. It sounds awesome."

Brannen Parrish, corps public affairs specialist, said no deadline exists for deciding on a permit. The permit involves sections from the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 and the Clean Water Act, he said. The permit request was filed in 2018.

About 2 acres of temporary fill and 1 acre of permanent fill would be placed in the Illinois River and about 1.6 acres of permanent fill would be put in adjacent areas.

Work would involve a 1,200-foot bypass channel with an alignment following a low area in the overbank. The whitewater course would create a navigable bypass around the dam along with a venue of whitewater features, according to corps documents.

Proposed amenities include parking, a bathhouse and takeout points adjacent to the river.

The initial cost is estimated at $15.6 million, according to an August 2017 Siloam Springs Board of Directors agenda. The foundation agreed to pay the authority through a grant for planning, engineering and construction of the park near what was once Lake Frances.

An agreement between the authority, Siloam Springs, Patton Ltd., and the Siloam Springs Resources Corp., which is owned by Siloam Springs, was signed in 2017, Alberty said.

How big the park will be won't be known until after the design work is done, Alberty said.

The authority was created by the Oklahoma Legislature in 1935 to construct dams along Grand River for the purposes of hydroelectric generation and flood control.

Merrick & Co.'s McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group division is designing the park for $1.1 million. The authority's board approved another $585,000 for design work in October. The design scope has changed with the addition of utilities and a maintenance facility, Alberty said.

Lake Frances was essentially depleted in 1990 when the lake's dam was severely damaged, according to a 2017 report in the Siloam Springs Herald-Leader. The 150-foot-wide dam and spillway was constructed in 1931, said Don Clark, Siloam Springs community development director.

The Siloam Springs Water Resources Corp. owns land around the Illinois River. The project is proposed where a freshwater intake for the city is located near, Clark said.

The city bought the land in the 1950s and ownership was set up in a trust because of the laws at that time, Clark said.

Siloam Springs relies on the dam to maintain sufficient water level to support the freshwater intake that is located upstream from the dam, Clark said. The dam hasn't received any significant structural maintenance or upgrades since a partial structural failure in May 1990, he said. It is estimated repair would cost $1.4 million, he said.

On Aug. 15, 2017, the Siloam Springs Board of Directors agreed to pay for half the repair and improvement to the dam, Clark said.

Dam hazard mitigation would consist of building grouted boulder steps downstream of the dam crest or spillway. The steps would eliminate the formation of overly retentive hydraulics and decrease the drowning hazards at the dam, according to corps documents. Dam hazard mitigation would allow flatwater activities on the upstream and downstream ends of the course.

Oklahoma Rep. David Hardin said the park could spur development in north Adair County. Hardin, a Republican, represents Adair, Cherokee and Delaware counties.

"In Watts, if you need a gallon of gas or a bottle of pop, you have to go to West Siloam Springs or Westville," he said. "Watts has the potential to grow quite a bit. It's going to have a huge impact."

Watts is a town of a little more than 300 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

U.S. 59 between Watts and Westville is ripe for development, Hardin said.

"They will have to stay somewhere," he said of visitors to the park. "They could go back across the state line, but we want to keep all the business we can here."

Kenny Stroud has fished the Illinois River in the area for more than 50 years. He's taking a wait-and-see approach.

"I think any tourism would help," he said. "I want to see how they run and how they maintain it."

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is widening U.S. 59 in that part of Adair County. The project has been done in sections over the years. The corridor of four and five lanes sits between U.S. 412 at West Siloam Springs on the north and its juncture with U.S. 62 at Westville to the south — a stretch of about 17 miles. The last piece of widening is happening now through Watts.

Zach Altom of Fayetteville has been kayaking for four years. He has been on the Buffalo, Mulberry and White rivers. He said he would drive to Oklahoma to test out the park's rapids.

Holly Treat, an outdoor education teacher at Bentonville High School, said some of her students go to the Siloam Springs Kayak Park and they would likely go to Oklahoma to try out the new park. It would be another outdoor opportunity for them, she said.

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Northwest Arkansas-Democrat.

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