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Fun (Actually in the Water) on the Trinity River

The Trinity has never been much-loved like the Guadalupe, the San Marcos or the Frio. For the first time, both Dallas and Fort Worth are making efforts to revitalize it and make it a destination for recreation.

By Joe Nick Patoski
Floaters splash and stay cool at "Rockin' the River-Live on the Trinity", a free event sponsored by the Trinity River Vision.

The scene near downtown Fort Worth was surreal. On a Thursday night in early June, several hundred people, mostly young adults, stripped down to their swimsuits and floated atop inner tubes on the Trinity River clutching soda and beer cans while listening to Josh Weathers and the True Endeavors playing on a stage on the west bank above a sign that read “Trinity River Vision.”

It was as if the Guadalupe River had been magically transported 250 miles north.

The Trinity has never been much-loved like the Guad, the San Marcos or the Frio — the state’s most popular recreational rivers, all of which are fed by artesian springs bubbling out of rocky Hill Country limestone and run relatively swift and clear. The Trinity is wide and muddy for most of its 710-mile journey from the northern prairie to the Gulf of Mexico northeast of Houston. By the time the Clear and West forks reach Fort Worth, dams, channels and levees give the river an industrial look even when there is no industry nearby.

The Trinity wasn’t always this way, and for the first time, both Dallas and Fort Worth are making efforts to revitalize it and make it a destination for recreation.

A $4 million kayak park, called the Dallas Wave whitewater park, below the confluence of the Elm and West forks, is one element of Dallas’s Trinity River Corridor Project, a $2.5 billion undertaking approved by the city’s voters in 1998 to transform the historically neglected Trinity floodplain into the nation’s largest urban park. So far, the most visible signs of the makeover, the largest urban development in Big D’s history, are the 400-foot-tall arched tower of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and the $37 million Trinity River Audubon Center, the gateway to the 6,000-acre Great Trinity Forest, the largest urban hardwood forest in the United States.

In Fort Worth, the $909 million Trinity Vision venture is centered on the creation of a Trinity Uptown addition to downtown, with residential and commercial developments clustered around a San Antonio-inspired river walk.

Both efforts have come with criticism and stumbles. Cost overruns and expensive add-ons like a toll road inside the levees in Dallas — now all but dead — have bogged down the Trinity River Corridor Project, while Trinity Vision has been attacked for its use of eminent domain to the benefit of private developers.

The planned opening of the Dallas Wave was delayed in May because of public safety concerns about its design, although paddlers appear more concerned about pollution in the river. It’s cleaner 30 miles upstream in Fort Worth but still urbanized enough that worries persist about the fecal coliform count in the water and elevated levels of highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls that have led to a ban on fish consumption.

Still, the Trinity project has forward momentum. A low dam constructed west of downtown Fort Worth has created a standing wave for kayakers and surfers, and there’s a new wakeboard park, Cowtown Wakepark, with cable tow lines built on a five-acre, man-made lake adjacent to the Trinity on Fort Worth’s north side.

Tubing is the latest recreation option added to the mix. Last Thursday’s event was the first of six Rockin’ the River tube floats scheduled for this summer by Trinity Vision, featuring live music, lifeguards and discounts at nearby bars in the newly hopping West Seventh district just west of downtown.

Judging from the photographs that Wendy Stane of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram posted on Facebook, most of the participants enjoyed themselves — and the stereotypical urban river experience was nowhere in sight

“We never encountered any bloated bodies or trash or other weirdness in the area we floated,” said Ms. Stane, a veteran tuber. “Other than sticks, leaves and mud, we had no problems.”

While she wishes for more sand in the launch area and portable showers so floaters can rinse off when they exit the river, Ms. Stane’s critique is one that city officials will be glad to hear. “I would definitely do it again,” she said.

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