The symbol of the phoenix rising from the ashes is one often synonymous with the South – where many municipalities had to rebuild following the Civil War, industrial shifts and economic downturns. In the case of Columbus, Georgia – poised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, which forms a natural border between Georgia and Alabama – rather than a rise from the ashes, water has served as the impetus of this city’s exciting rebirth. The river that first drew Creek Indians to the region soon caught the eye and imagination of visionary settlers who could see the area’s potential as a major trade route. Officially founded in 1828 and named after famed explorer Christopher Columbus, this Southern city would one day grow to be the second largest municipality in Georgia, located 100 miles from the largest… the city of Atlanta. The introduction of the railroad and the textile industries spurred Columbus’ growth during the mid-1800s, as mills dotted the landscape along the Chattahoochee – making it a significant industrial center in a state widely known for its agricultural importance. Its role as a major supplier to the Confederacy during the Civil War also made Columbus a key target for the Union Army. On April 16, 1865 - one week after General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant - a battle broke out in Columbus. Known as the last land battle of the war, Union troops attacked and burned much of the city, particularly the industrial buildings. During Reconstruction and the years that followed, Columbus rebuilt and once again found its place as a major industrial powerhouse. In the decades to come, technology shifts would eventually lead to the closure of the textile mills. Columbus found itself as the home to headquarters for major corporations such as AFLAC, Synovus, TSYS and Carmike Cinemas, as well as the area’s largest employer, Fort Benning. However, a number of factors – including the dams that once powered the textile mills – had significantly altered the appearance and health of the river that ran through the city. Many of the buildings that lined the Chattahoochee became abandoned and Columbus sought ways to draw its residents and visitors back to the river. It was time to rebuild once again. THE RIVERWALK Billy G. Turner, former Columbus Water Works President, points to an interesting chain of events that led to the development of a 22-mile walking and biking area along the Chattahoochee River, now known as the Chattahoochee RiverWalk. By the mid-1980s, the Chattahoochee was in a deplorable state in many sections from Atlanta to Columbus. Severe drought in the late 1980s, coupled with pollution conditions and stricter State legislation outlined by the Clean Water Act, made it clear that Columbus would need to clean up its act. Shortly after his arrival in Columbus in 1989, Turner and his team at Columbus Water Works began performing studies to discover the root causes for the poor condition of the Chattahoochee and explore solutions to fix it. Columbus had a combined sewer system that funneled a large volume of runoff from a portion of the city. Since there was no demonstrated technology to deal with this type of problem, Columbus Water Works performed original research to define a solution. They came up with a number of options to deal with the issue, including the construction of two separate treatment plants to clean the water before it hit the river – one plant above the downtown area and another below. Of course, the challenge with this option is that large pipes would need to be placed along the riverbanks to convey the water. Unfortunately, the banks, like the river, had deteriorated over time from erosion and debris dumping. In the mid-1800s, the city streets had been lit by gas lanterns from wood and coal gasification. Gasification plants had been operated along the riverfront, and waste from these operations had contaminated the bank area with black muck flowing into the river. A hazardous waste cleanup of a section of the riverbank was necessary before the project could proceed with the installation of large pipes to convey the contaminated water to the two treatment sites. Columbus would need a solution to stabilize the banks in order to house the large pipes. “Basically, this project, which serves as a bank and sewer maintenance route today, is called by most ‘the RiverWalk’,” explained Turner. “The first phase opened on Columbus Day 1992 – marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to America. It has since seen several additional phases, including an extension down to Fort Benning and restoration of the 14th Street Bridge to Phenix City, Alabama. There are still a few small sections under construction, with plans to eventually ensure a continuous thoroughfare along the river.” THE RAPIDS During a trip to oversee his firm’s design of the 1996 Whitewater Olympic Venue on the Ocoee River, Rick McLaughlin, P.E. of McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group made a detour to Columbus. McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, a division of Merrick & Company, engineers whitewater and river restoration by redesigning the flowing water. McLaughlin immediately observed all of the work being done on the RiverWalk, and couldn’t help but notice that there was not much going on around it. He mentioned to the City that there was a lot of potential there. With the removal of two dams, McLaughlin believed rapids would prove a great draw. Five years later, he got a call back to deliver a preliminary report. After a preliminary design, funding efforts and land acquisition by the project sponsors, the final design phase began in 2010 and the rapids were completed in 2013. Of course, the road to designing, engineering and launching the world’s largest whitewater project in an existing river was not without its challenges. First and foremost, the Chattahoochee is a big river. “Most of the cost of the project was simply getting into the river,” explained McLaughlin. “We were proposing 22 new features to add within a two-mile stretch of the river. We knew it was a fall line rapid, but didn’t know exactly what was under the water. We had never worked on a recreational whitewater project of this scale. Whereas the river normally flows at 900 900 cubic feet per second (cfs), it can push up to 13,000 cfs on a daily basis and, during its highest flows, as much as 150,000 cfs. These huge daily fluctuations proved a challenge. Everything had to be designed to withstand the 100-year flood event. There was a lot of risk there – a very unique project. It involved the ecological restoration of a natural habitat and an economic development project at the same time.” Before the actual rapids could be realized, McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group first constructed a HEC-RAS hydraulic model, then a 2D model with over 50 iterations, followed by one of the largest physical whitewater models ever built. The physical modeling proved an excellent and accurate design tool for the unique work at hand (not to mention the fact that it was fun). The design included some large features, such as the Cut Bait Rapid, which has a drop of about 10 feet. If riders don’t feel up to this Class IV rapid, they can always take an alternate path down a series of big waves and an adjustable whitewater feature called a WaveShaperTM. Upstream, a lazy river segment allows fun seekers a more relaxing experience. “Permit approvals were also challenging,” admitted Turner. “The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulated both dams, which were historic structures. To get the approval for their removal took three years on its own. We also needed buy-in from U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Once we had the green light for their removal, we held a competition to see who would take the dams out; Batson- Cook was ultimately chosen. A separate subcontractor removed the historic wooden dam material, which was valuable salvage. Once construction of the rapids began, we got lucky with a dry summer – plus Georgia Power worked with us to slow down the flow of the river.” In addition to bringing an exciting attraction to Columbus and potential impact on the city’s economic vitality, the realization of the rapids also had a positive environmental impact. By removing the dams and returning the river to its natural flow, the project restored more than two miles of river habitat for listed endangered species; created fish passage for American shad, striped bass and herring; and produced a designated fish and bird habitat. “It is so rewarding to see the way it turned out, observe its performance and witness the transformation of the downtown area in Columbus,” said McLaughlin of the rapids his firm designed. “The difference is amazing, and to know that we contributed to that is really great. I’m very proud of the fact that our design has proved to work despite the unknowns and challenges. In the years since its launch, it has had a very good safety record – despite the size and fluctuations in flow.” THE REVIVAL Mayor Teresa Tomlinson had worked in Columbus for several years before moving to the city in 1994. She can recall not having many choices when it came to something as simple as dining out. Today, she and her husband enjoy going to Market Days on Broadway every Saturday, often eating breakfast or lunch downtown and then swinging by the RiverWalk to watch the rafters, kayakers, water yoga participants and visitors to the city. “Things are very different today,” said Tomlinson. “Our downtown area bustles with activity every day of the week and there are many restaurants, live music venues and entertainment establishments from which to choose. We have free concerts where we block off the streets to traffic. You see people biking to work or biking for recreation. A typical sight includes kayaks strapped to the top of cars. It’s a complete transformation.” Richard Bishop, CEO of Uptown Columbus, Inc. – a private, nonprofit organization chartered to encourage and support quality development and redevelopment in the heart of the city – also shares the Mayor’s view with regard to the changes to the downtown area over the course of the past five to 10 years. He points to the addition of fitness facilities, retail stores, restaurants, apartments and Columbus State University’s Schools of Music, Theatre, Dance and Art. The transformation has been particularly noticeable since the rapids were opened to the public in 2013. “We contracted with Whitewater Express, which also has operations on the Nantahala and Ocoee Rivers, along with 30 years of experience,” recalled Bishop. “In addition to rafting, in 2014 they introduced a 1,200- foot zipline that runs across the river and a 60-foot zip that runs along the river bank on the Alabama side. We had 16,000 people down the river during the rapids’ first year of operation. During Riverfest in May 2014, we hosted our ‘official opening’ of the rapids and saw another 25,000 people down the river that year. We fully expect upwards of 30,000 rafters down the river over the course of 2015. Our gross sales receipts have gone up year-over-year since the whitewater opened, but it’s not just about the river. Uptown Columbus has an energy all its own with the development of new restaurants, retail, residential living and the arts.” The progressive attitude that led to the development of the RiverWalk and Rapids is still alive and well in Columbus. The city is currently connecting the RiverWalk with Rails to Trails and other projects to create a biking grid in Columbus’ larger in-town community. “From a Mayor’s perspective, it is all about setting a vision that can be sustained,” continued Tomlinson. “So, we want to optimize and build on what we have, while continuing to push the envelope on the next phase or next iteration of our great amenity. Recently, we have been fortunate to learn cycling best practices from other communities that came before us. Our objective is to be the first Silver Level Bicycle Friendly community in the State. We are presently a Bronze Bicycle Friendly city. The purpose underlying the title is to have protected bike lanes where all citizens, regardless of their proficiency at cycling, feel comfortable riding. Ultimately, we would like to see parents cycling their kids to school or the park, and adults cycling to work or errands. We have only just begun our renaissance. We seek to take the ingenuity that brought us the RiverWalk and find – and build – the next big thing.” WHEN PASSION AND PROFESSION COLLIDE Olympiad entrepreneur and GA Tech Grad-ScottShipley -offers a novel approach to whitewater design From a very young age, the water has felt like home to Scott Shipley. His father, a ship designer for the Navy, was on the national kayak racing team in 1965. Shipley followed in his footsteps by competing in the Olympics three times (1992, 1996, 2000). Along with four world titles, he also has Bachelors and Masters degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology to his credit. While still in school, he read an article about a design firm called Recreation Engineering & Planning in Colorado. Shortly following his graduation from Tech in 2003, he headed west to take a job with the firm in whitewater park design. In the years since, Shipley has had a hand in the realization of the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, the largest whitewater park in the world, as well as design of a number of wellrevered projects in the U.K. including the 2012 Olympic Venue, the Holme Pierrepont National Watersports Centre and the Teesside Whitewater Park. In 2006, he launched his own whitewater design company – S2O – and invented an innovative moveable obstacle system that can make an entire river channel adjustable and reconfigurable. His patented “Rapidblocs” system features large modular blocks that can be placed underwater, and were initially a response to his involvement in the design of the artificial whitewater course for the 2012 Olympics in London. “Rapidblocs” are light enough for one worker to carry, yet robust enough to withstand the turbulent forces of whitewater. They can be used in existing bodies of water or can serve as the foundation of a man-made course. His story serves as a prime example of an ideal marriage of passion and occupation. Shipley welcomes the opportunity to return to his old stomping grounds one day to design a whitewater course in Atlanta.
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