The dam on the Illinois River just north of Watts that once formed Lake Frances, a source of drinking water for Siloam Springs, Ark., and site of a future white water park. Part of the river now flows around the dam (left). CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

The Grand River Dam Authority’s board of directors voted unanimously on Wednesday to pay an additional $585,000 to a Denver, Colo., engineering firm hired through a no-bid contract to design a whitewater rafting park on the Illinois River near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border.

Merrick & Company’s McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group division was hired by GRDA in early 2018 under a $1.1 million contract to complete design and engineering work on a multi-million dollar whitewater park planned for a site on the Illinois River known as Lake Frances, located just north of Watts.

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.

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 plans also show the dam structure on the river that created Lake Frances will remain in place, but a rocky stair-step structure (using materials excavated from the site) will be added below the spillway.

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.

Merrick & Company was working with the Walton Family Foundation on designing the project prior to an agreement in late 2017 between the foundation, GRDA, the city of Siloam Springs, Ark., 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 that would require GRDA to construct, own and operate the park.

An illustration of what the proposed white water park near the Lake Frances site will look like. Courtesy/City of Siloam Springs.

After GRDA agreed to take on the project, GRDA CEO Dan Sullivan requested that the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services allow competitive bidding be waived in order to keep Merrick & Company on the project.

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.

The change order approved by the GRDA board on Wednesday, which is a 50 percent increase from the original contracted amount, was on the board’s consent agenda, and did not receive any discussion prior to approval.

After the meeting, GRDA Communications Director Justin Alberty, said the Walton Family Foundation would reimburse GRDA for the additional cost, and that the reason for the increase was because of additions to the plans for the park.

“They’re changing the scope on the whitewater project,” Alberty said. “The original scope didn’t include things like a maintenance building and the electric and the communications. It was more based on the design of the water park itself.”

Alberty said he could not provide the change order documents to The Frontier on Wednesday.

The project is still awaiting approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must approve the application for the park and issue a permit before construction can begin.

In other business during Wednesday’s meeting, the board approved a rule change that would allow the GRDA CEO to make purchases or enter into contracts up to $150,000 without seeking board approval. Previously, the CEO could only make purchases or enter into contracts of $50,000 or less, or contracts that extended one year or less without board approval.

The board also approved an $8.9 million contract with Siemens Energy Inc. for repairs to the Grand River Energy Center’s 520MW Unit 2, which first came online in 1985, after being damaged earlier this year.

Further reading:

Grand River Dam Authority plans to build, own and operate multimillion dollar water park on Illinois River

GRDA board approves $40,000 raise for CEO, votes to decommission plant’s coal-fired unit