By Luke Carothers

One of the largest projects currently under construction in Montgomery, Alabama is not something that first comes to mind when thinking about the South.  However, the Montgomery Whitewater Project is looking to make the area synonymous with whitewater and outdoor recreation.  Work is currently underway on a new 120-acre facility that will house a particularly unique attraction–a recirculating whitewater park–that will allow visitors to experience whitewater rafting and kayaking.  In addition, the facility will also host numerous other outdoor activities including zip-lining, mountain biking, ropes courses, and climbing.

The firm at the head of this ambitious project is S2O Design and Engineering.  The Montgomery Whitewater Project’s ambition is certainly matched by S2O’s expertise.  Based out of Lyons, Colorado, S2O is owned by 3-time kayak Olympian Scott Shipley.  On top of having the experience of competing at the highest level, Shipley and S2O are responsible for the first two recirculating whitewater courses in the country.  The first of these recirculating whitewater courses–located in Charlotte, North Carolina–was opened in 2006.  The second, located in Oklahoma City, was opened ten years later in 2016.  Now, this experience is being applied to the transformative project underway in Montgomery.

Shortly after work finished in Oklahoma City, S2O was contacted about completing a similar project in Montgomery.  Jeffrey Gustin, a Senior Program Manager for S2O Design and Engineering, says that the Montgomery Whitewater Project came from a local desire to improve the community.  Gustin notes that S2O was contacted by a local resident by the name of Megan Mackenzie.  Despite not having any background in development, Mackenzie was able to gain support from local and statewide organizations and people.  In doing so, Mackenzie made the project a suitable fit for S2O, and work on funding and designing the project soon began.

The centerpiece of the new facility is the recirculating whitewater course.  Gustin notes that, in its most basic design, this system consists of two “ponds”, one below the other.  Between these two ponds is a pump station that moves water from the bottom to the top.  Gustin says that “they have two channels that connect the two ponds”, which combine with gravity and strategically placed obstacles to create a manmade recirculating whitewater course.  The process of constructing the physical parameters for a man made whitewater river requires a massive amount of digging and concrete.  According to Gustin, the course has a roughly 10-12 acre footprint with roughly 250,000 square feet of concrete surface area.  This massive number doesn’t take into account the additional concrete that is being poured for the rest of the park outside of the course.

One of the more unique features of the recirculating whitewater system are the pumps that power the water’s flow.  These are the largest water pumps made in the world, capable of pumping half a million gallons of water in a minute.  For context, if all five pumps used in this system were turned on at the same time it would take less than 90 seconds to fill an olympic sized swimming pool.

This massive flow of uphill push, coupled with the downhill flow of water, creates a turbulent channel, but this isn’t all that is required to create an exciting and dynamic whitewater course.  To create dynamic courses S2O is also using a product called Rapid Blocks.  Gustin likens the use of these blocks to how golf courses move the hole on the green to change a player’s approach.  Likewise, these Rapid Blocks can be altered to change a user’s approach to the whitewater course.  This also means that the difficulty of the course can be altered greatly–supporting an Olympic-caliber training run on one channel and novices on the other.

The ability to change the difficulty of the whitewater course allows visitors to gain experience in whitewater conditions.  Gustin believes that the impact of such a varying range is two-fold.  On one hand, casual users can experience these conditions in a fun and controlled environment.  While the majority of the park’s new visitors will likely be casual users, a not insignificant percentage of these visitors will enjoy the experience enough that they become more frequent and experienced repeat whitewater enthusiasts.  With no established whitewater community in Montgomery prior to this project, this project represents an opportunity that would not have been available to the area’s residents, thereby opening them up to join new communities and form new relationships.

The impetus behind the Montgomery Whitewater Project is to create a space that has reverberating positive effects in the larger community.  For Mackenzie and many other Montgomery residents, the area is full of history and culture that is eager to be rediscovered in the light of the modern era.  Like many towns in the South and other areas of the country, Montgomery has problems keeping their young population from moving elsewhere.  Gustin says that the Montgomery Whitewater Project will hopefully serve as a catalyst for further recreational and cultural development.  

The downtown core of Montgomery has been undergoing a period of development over the past twelve years.  However, Gustin notes that the short stretch between the city and the nearby Air Force base has been neglected for the past few decades.  The whitewater course is just the first part of a redevelopment of this space.  Also included in this first phase is a restaurant, patios, a beer garden, climbing areas, zip lines, and trails.  Gustin says that the goal is phase one is to offer a little bit of everything, then expand from there.  

Building a whitewater park where there is not a built in audience is, as Gustin puts it, a “leap of faith.”  In addition to attracting visitors from the local community, the park has to pull in visitors from the surrounding areas via the interstate.  However, despite these challenges, Gustin believes that the Montgomery Whitewater Project is indicative of the faith the citizens of Montgomery have in their community.  The project is also representative of the community it inhabits.  Despite having a black population over 50 percent in Montgomery, the community has historically been barred from the same labor opportunities as their white neighbors.  Acknowledging this history, the Montgomery Whitewater Project has made it a priority to make their hiring practices for the project representative of the community.  With an initial goal of 30 percent minority participation on the project, Gustin says they conducted workshops with community leaders and used channels like radio and churches to encourage minority participation.  To date, the 30 percent mark has been exceeded with more than 40 percent minority participation currently.  

The Montgomery Whitewater Project is scheduled to be completed by Memorial Day 2023.


Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.  

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