An Oklahoma state agency plans to build, own and operate a multi-million-dollar white water park on one of Oklahoma’s designated scenic rivers in Adair County, with the assistance of an Arkansas town and financial backing from one of the wealthiest families in the world.
Under the terms of a memorandum of understanding signed in late 2017, the Grand River Dam Authority, an Oklahoma state government entity based in Vinita, will construct, own and operate a whitewater park on the Illinois River just north of Watts at a location formerly known as Lake Frances near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border.
The GRDA entered into the memorandum of understanding in November 2017, along with the City of Siloam Springs, Ark., the Walton Family Foundation, Patton Limited LLC (a company created by the Walton Family Foundation that purchased land near the project) and the Siloam Springs Water Resources Corporation, which is owned by the city of Siloam Springs.
However, building of the planned park is not yet a done deal, since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to sign off on the park’s construction, said Ed Fite, GRDA Vice-President of Water Quality, who previously served as the administrator for the Scenic River Commission for decades and has been involved in discussions on the project for the past eight or nine years.
The application for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin work on the white water parked was filed last summer by the GRDA. Approval of a permit is considered by those involved with the project to be one of the last regulatory hurdles before construction contracts are put out to bid by GRDA to begin work on the project.
“To come out and say we’re building a project at this point is premature because there’s a lot that’s required before we can get to that point,” Fite said. “We’re exploring it, the project is not a go at this point.”
If a permit is approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a building contract is awarded by GRDA, construction on the park should take between one to two years, said Phillip Patterson, city administrator for Siloam Springs.
The Walton Family Foundation, the Bentonville-based charitable foundation created by WalMart founder Sam Walton, agreed to pay GRDA through a grant for planning, engineering and construction of the park, which is estimated to cost between $15.6 million and $18 million, The Frontier has learned through planning documents and interviews.
Planned attractions at the park include the international race class whitewater kayaking, mountain biking trails, parking, picnic tables, changing facilities and other amenities, according to park plans.
The city of Siloam Springs, Ark., which uses the river upstream from the dam as a drinking water source and currently owns most of the land surrounding the project area through an Oklahoma corporation, will reimburse the Walton Family Foundation $700,000 to pay for reinforcement of the low dam on the river that once created Lake Frances. Under the agreement, signed in late 2017, GRDA also agreed to provide $700,000 worth of in-kind work strengthening the spillway.
According to park plans presented by the Walton Family Foundation to the city of Siloam Springs last year, the dam structure on the river will remain in place, but a rocky stair-step structure (using materials excavated from the site) will be added below the spillway.
The dam itself was built in 1931, but part of the dam failed in 1990, draining most of Lake Frances. Now, much of the Illinois River flows around the dam to the north before plunging back into the original river channel. There have been several drownings near the dam over the years because of the downstream water conditions created by the dam’s presence.
Adding the proposed stair-step structure below the spillway not only reinforces the dam, but also hopefully eliminates the dangerous hydrological conditions downstream from the spillway, Patterson said.
“It’s a need for us because it will shore up that dam from a structural integrity standpoint and hopefully maintain that for future generations, but also it’s a huge safety factor,” Patterson said. “The stair-stepping takes that force out of the water and hopefully eliminates the potential for somebody to get hurt that way.”
Under the proposed plan water flow in the river would be diverted to the north starting about 1,200 feet upstream of the dam’s location and would serve as the main whitewater course. Kayakers and other people floating the river would be able to go around the dam through the course that ends just downstream of the dam structure.
“The intent is the water that flows around the dam today where the dam has given way would be directed into this new cut that would go around the dam and water would only flow over the dam when the water gets high enough,” Patterson said. “The idea is to have a whitewater park there to give families the opportunity to go and watch the kayakers, or in the lower sections of that park to give them the opportunity to throw an inner tube in and float down the falls through the lower reaches and back out on the river.”
Land and tax records show that the Walton Family Foundation purchased some of the property not owned by Siloam Springs Water Resource Company near the site nearly five years ago through an Arkansas limited liability company, Patton Limited, LLC.
Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding, the GRDA is required to apply for the necessary permits for the project from state and federal regulators, the cost of which will be reimbursed by the Walton Family Foundation.
So far, the cost of permitting and planning has been between $1 million and $2 million, Fite said.
Once the permitting and planning process are complete and GRDA has selected a construction contractor, Patton Limited and the Siloam Springs Water Resources Company will deed the land surrounding the project over to the GRDA, the MOU states. Once the land is transferred to GRDA, construction on the park can begin.
The Siloam Springs Water Resources Company will maintain ownership of the dam structure and some of the land near the site, according to the agreement, and GRDA would be required to maintain the water in Lake Frances at a certain level so the city of Siloam Springs can continue to withdraw drinking water.
The Walton Family Foundation will also pay GRDA for the park’s first year of operation, according to the agreement.
A spokesman for the Walton Family Foundation did not respond to questions about the project submitted by The Frontier before publication time.
The agreement states that upon completion of the park, no alcohol may be sold or consumed on the premises, and the park will be operated as a family-oriented facility open to all. The cost of entry would be required to be held to a cost-of-service basis, the MOU states.
Plans by the Walton Family Foundation to build a whitewater park at Lake Frances have been in the works for years, and it began making land purchases around the site of the project in 2014, land records show.
Fite said talks between him and others on the proposed park, including the Walton Family Foundation, started with a “what if?” such a project could be done. Until the permits are approved and construction starts, it remains that way, he said.
“It’s the first project that someone has brought to the table that actually addresses the concerns related to Lake Frances since that dam failed,” Fite said. “There have been no other agencies who have offered any money or any efforts to do what is being proposed.”
Fite estimated the permitting process may take between six months and a year to complete, and the GRDA is in the process of addressing concerns raised during the comment phase by agencies about the plan, including questions about the effects on endangered species that live in and around the river, potential water quality issues, and archeological concerns.
“I don’t envision we’re going to see a quick turnaround on this permit right now given the climate,” Fite said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue to do our work.”
Had the proposed project been located anywhere else on the Illinois River, it’s likely that it would have been a nonstarter.
“If this project were proposed anywhere else on the Illinois River, it probably would not be considered because of the free-flowing condition of the Illinois River,” Fite said. “But the Lake Frances dam has been there for so long, and its used as a water supply for the city of Siloam Springs and we want to continue to protect that. Otherwise, it probably would not have been a project that wouldn’t have been considered.”
A May 2016 report written by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business evaluating the proposed park projected nearly 200,000 will visit the park each year, resulting in a $7.45 million annual economic impact for Siloam Springs.
“Obviously, I think the park will add this recreational amenity to this region,” Patterson said. “What we hope is it helps improve the local economies for northeast Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas.”
Fite said, if the project is approved, it is likely to be a regional draw and be an economic development boon for the towns in the area.
The engineering and design of the park is being completed Denver, Colo.,-based firm Merrick & Company, according to state purchasing records. In February 2018, GRDA CEO Dan Sullivan requested that then-director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services Denise Northrup issue a waiver of state competitive bidding requirements to allow GRDA to hire Merrick & Company for the project.
A division of Merrick & Company, McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, had been hired by the Walton Family Foundation to do much of the early design and draft work on the park, and GRDA wanted to keep them on the project, according to the February 2018 waiver application.
The waiver was approved and GRDA entered into a $1.1 million contract with Merrick & Company to continue providing engineering and design services on the project, according to state purchasing records and GRDA board meeting minutes.
The GRDA is a nonprofit state agency created by the Legislature in 1935 to control, develop and maintain the Grand River waterway, including power generation through hydroelectric dams on the river. It has since expanded to electricity generation through coal-fired power plants and from wind farms, and has electrical customers throughout eastern Oklahoma.
In 2016, GRDA absorbed the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission and its powers and duties to protect, enhance and preserve the Illinois River and its tributaries.
Lake Frances was created in 1931 as a private resort development with the construction of the concrete dam on the Illinois River by Tulsan James W. Sloan, who also purchased much of the land around the lake.
During the 1930s, Lake Frances served as a posh resort for wealthy Tulsans and drew summer vacationers from as far as New Orleans and featured hotels, cabins But its popularity began to diminish during World War II, and some time after the collapse of the levee, it was purchased by Siloam Springs through a city-owned corporation for a water supply.
What remained of the lake began to fill with silt, making it barely a foot deep in some locations, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s Oklahoma officials were concerned that the sediment that had built up over the years contained high levels of phosphorus and some toxic chemicals that had flowed downstream from Arkansas. When part of the dam collapsed in 1990, it exposed much the high-phosphorus-level sediment in the lake bed that had built up since the 1930s and reduced the once 570-acre lake to about the width of the original river.
Some state officials declared the lake a “shallow, polluted mudhole” that clouded and filled the waters of the Illinois River with algae for miles downstream. At one point, Siloam Springs offered to sell the lake to Oklahoma for $1, but that offer was rejected.
Fite said it’s unlikely that the small amount of work that’s being planned below the dam, or the planned work near the river on the project would cause water quality issues downstream.
“I have carved my reputation out of stone as being a proponent for water quality in our state for years,” said Fite, who has advocated for decades for improved water quality in the river. “If I thought this project was going to degrade water quality in the Illinois River, I would be the first one standing up and saying ‘this project cannot be built.’”
There have been some talks about the potential for future development near the proposed site, but at the moment the focus in on getting the project cleared, he said.
“I’ve heard all kinds of rumors over the years. Our focus right now is to develop a water park for recreational purposes and use the water park for recreational purposes and to use the water park to help correct some of the environmental issues that have been lingering since the dam at Lake Frances failed in May of 1990,” Fite said. “The project is envisioned to be a balance between protection of the environment and a robust economy. This first project we’re doing at GRDA with these partners is solely related to the water park at this point. There’s been a lot of discussion about other layers in the future, but those are just concepts that are being tossed about right now.”