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Civics

Why the Trinity River Project Remains Dallas’ Impossible Dream

Dallas continues to show a profound lack of respect for the Trinity River.
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If you haven’t been following the ongoing fiasco surrounding the Dallas Wave very closely, I don’t blame you. It has been particularly depressing and infuriating. Last week, the city council found out that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers threatened to shut off the city’s water supply if the city didn’t take immediate action to fix the white water feature that opened five years ago and was then swiftly closed because it was deemed too hazardous.

Today, Jim Schutze reports that some people inside city hall hoped to get Congress to exempt the river from a federal law regarding waterway navigation in order to get around the Corps’ objections to the broken white water feature. You may remember that the city already managed to persuade Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson to slip a measure into a piece of federal legislation that exempts the stretch of the Trinity near downtown from all sorts of federal environmental oversight.

There are two pretty rich ironies floating around this latest scuttlebutt over the Dallas Wave. The first is that the one of the only recreational amenities we have to show for the long-stagnated Trinity River Project actually makes enjoying the Trinity River more difficult. The second is that in its earliest incarnation the Trinity River Project was born as a dream of making the Trinity River navigable for cargo ships down to the Gulf of Mexico. Now, the city wants to remove the requirement that it must be navigable.

The Trinity River Project has dogged this city for more than a century, but why has it been such a mess for so long? On paper, it sounds so simple. Improve flood control, make a park, and add some transportation element to the corridor. And yet, decades after its modern inception, Dallas still has little to show for all its effort. What’s the problem?

I believe this whole Dallas Wave fiasco helps shed lights on the real reason why the Trinity River Project has remained such an impossible dream. Sure, it touches on all the major conflicts at play in the Trinity. The city and the Corps are both charged with managing the flood plain and they have different priorities and goals. The city’s bureaucracy is impossible, operating like a rogue organization that answers more readily to outside influencers than elected representatives. When it comes to oversight of the Trinity River, there are too many interdepartmental grey areas in City Hall to exploit. Then there are the various nonprofits advancing the Trinity, part of a philanthropic architecture that offers business interests a means to buy influence in the project’s direction, and advances a schizophrenic vision of urban and environmental amenities — like the wave — that don’t jibe with the reality of the Trinity River’s particular ecology, geology, and urban geography.

But beneath all of this, what the Dallas Wave — and all the intrigue around it — reveals is a deep and profound lack of respect for the Trinity River itself. And as long as this disrespect exists at the heart of the effort behind the Trinity River Project, it will continue to exist as Dallas’ elusive — or bungled — dream.

The lack of respect for the Trinity is a symptom of dysfunction that goes straight to the heart of Dallas’ can-do, ambitious, and entrepreneurial character. In all aspects of civic life, Dallas looks outside for affirmation and inspiration. With regards to the Trinity, we want lakes, we want an urban park, we want rapids, we want bridges, we want golf courses, and we want a new parkway and parking lots and all the rest. But what we don’t seem to want is the Trinity River itself.

We don’t want its subtle, temperamental beauty. We don’t want the dark canopied forests, hot grasslands, and small ponds that shelter hundreds of bird species and comprise one of the most dynamic migratory corridors in North America. We don’t want the floods that snapped the information kiosks in the flood plain and slathered the paths with silt this past year, but turned the space between the levees into glistening eddies and shallow ponds that attract heron, egrets, and turtles. Rather than letting the river be what it is, coming up with simple ways to manage and extend access to a dynamic and difficult wetland, the vast majority of the effort behind the Trinity River Project has been directed towards turning the green corridor that flows through the heart of Dallas into something it is not.

The mayor has shown some magnanimity by creating an oversight committee featuring a mix of voices to review the plans drawn up last year by the team of urban experts nicknamed the “Dream Team.” But let’s not forget that the Dream Team’s plans represent a false realignment of our Trinity aspirations. What we still need after all these years of failure and false progress is a true reset, a new vision for the Trinity’s future that is generated not as a compromise born out of conversations between conflicted private stakeholders, but one that starts with deep and profound respect for the river itself.

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