site reconnaissance report

 John Anderson Architect

October 27, 1999

This study was commissioned by the former West Kentucky Corporation. The cooperation of the Army Corps of Engineers, Tennessee Valley Authority, the City of Grand Rivers and the invaluable input of private individuals is gratefully acknowledged.

A whitewater course similar to that constructed for the 1996 Olympics was first suggested by the West Kentucky Corporation as a vehicle for economic development and tourism in the Grand Rivers area.

A site reconnaissance made in late September 1999, identified four potential sites in the area around Kentucky and Lake Barkley Dams. Of these sites the east side of Lake Barkley Lock and Dam is the most promising.

The abundant year-round supply of water at Barkley Dam combined with the vertical drop of more than 50 feet gives this site unprecedented hydraulic gradient when compared to existing whitewater sites, which have between 12 and 21 feet of fall. The land area of over 110 acres and the possibility to incorporate adjacent private parcels gives Barkley Dam more development potential than any other existing man-made whitewater venue in the world.

We propose a phased development that will have nearly a mile and a half of whitewater when complete. There will be two channels of varying difficulty that will satisfy a range of users from children in inner tubes to world-class athletes. The budget is $12.5 million for Phase I and $6.8 million for Phase II.

Water for the channels will be supplied by a pump-assisted siphon that will draw water from Barkley Lake, over the dam and into the whitewater channel. The water will flow by gravity down the man-made rivers before spilling into the Cumberland River. The water bypasses the hydroelectric dam and does not return to the lake.

Because the water bypasses the hydroelectric turbines this project is, in effect, a consumptive use of Lake Barkley water. As a result, water rights must be obtained. This proposal is timely because of the water allocation study for Lake Barkley currently being undertaken by the Army Corps of Engineers. This project, though technically feasible, is dependent upon a satisfactory allocation of water in order to be a financially sound proposal.

From an engineering feasibility standpoint, the water siphon needs considerable design work and agency review in order to be offered with confidence. In addition, matters such as dam safety, sewer service, traffic, environmental impacts, and landowner participation need to be addressed at an early date.

An economic impact study that shows the project benefits is the next step. At the Ocoee River in rural Tennessee for example, whitewater rafting is the major contributor to the local economy. Whitewater courses however do not recoup their capital costs by gate receipts alone–it is the spending impacts to the surrounding areas that justify such projects. User fees though, can be sufficient to cover operations and maintenance costs for a man-made facility such as proposed here.

our potential sites were considered for a whitewater venue. In descending order of preference they are:

  1. East side of Barkley Dam (Army Corps of Engineers)
  2. Sledd Creek property (TVA)
  3. West side of Kentucky Dam (TVA)
  4. East side of Kentucky Dam (TVA)

The sites were evaluated on their potential for:

Technical Feasibility:

Economic Merit:


Site 1 ~ East Side of Barkley Dam

This site is located in the large open field adjacent to the Army Corps generating facility at Barkley Dam.

A likely development scenario involves a pump assisted siphon supplying water to a whitewater channel cut into the open field. Because of the large amount of potential head (over 50 feet) and the large open site, a channel of unprecedented length and drop could be achieved.




East Side of Barkley Dam (cont.)


The preferred alternative and the basis of the conceptual illustrations. Please see page 11 for further discussion of this site.

Site 2 ~ Sledd Creek

This is a TVA property on west side of Kentucky Lake that has been identified for commercial recreation. The property is available for recreation development and TVA is actively seeking proposals.

Photo courtesy TVA

A likely development scenario is a whitewater course powered by electric pumps rather than by gravity flow. Pumps would be necessary because the site is far from any dams that could supply its water. The water for the course is drawn from Kentucky Lake by the pumps, released into the whitewater channel and then returned to the lake.




A viable candidate though one that does not have as much potential as East Barkley Dam site.


Site 3 ~ West Side of Kentucky Dam

The broad flood plain along the east bank of the river is presently unoccupied and available for development for water based recreation.

Photo courtesy Army Corps of Engineers

A likely development scenario is a whitewater channel starting north of the proposed highway 64 bridge and ending near the boat ramp 2000 feet to the north. Water is supplied by a siphon over Kentucky Dam which is then piped 1400 feet north to the start of the course. Water rights would have to be negotiated with TVA who generates electricity at the dam.


West Side of Kentucky Dam (Cont.)



A viable site but has potential access problems and potentially expensive water. Dropped from further consideration unless fatal flaws are found in the leading candidates.


Site 4 ~ East Side of Kentucky Dam

This site lies just downstream of the proposed lock expansion project at Kentucky Dam and was identified because of the possibility of tapping water through the lock expansion project.

Photo courtesy Army Corps of Engineers


A likely development scenario is a whitewater course located below the dam in the region of the TVA firing range. Water is supplied via pipes from the lock project and returned via a spillway to the river near the mouth of Russell Creek.



Site 4 ~ East Side of Kentucky Dam (cont.)


Eliminated from further consideration due to its many disadvantages, chiefly the lack of room and hilly topography.


Barkley Dam is the apparent best site.

Comparison table of the potential sites

Level of Development

ecause of the amount of vertical drop (up to 50 feet) and the large land area of the site, the only limits to development are the imagination of the planners, capital cost and the cost of water rights.

Figure 1 (on next page) shows two levels of development, a high range and a low range. The low range (shown in dotted lines) is a basic but adequate project that would be considered state of the art at any other site in the country. The high range attempts to show the full development potential of the site.

Basic Project

A basic development concept occupies a fraction of the available land. It includes a 1400-foot international competition quality whitewater course and a 400 cfs water supply. It is supported by an operations building, parking, and road improvements. A budget estimate for this project is $7.7 million.

High Level Project

This project (shown fully in figure 1 on following fold out page) draws outside the box as it invites participation of the adjacent landowner to the east. It is two-phased project that when complete would be unprecedented anywhere in the world.

Phase I includes a 3300-foot international-level whitewater course and a 600 cfs water supply. The channel has a challenging upper section followed by a milder gradient below. The course is supported by an operations building, parking, and road improvements, and there is a rock climbing wall. A budget estimate for this phase is $12.5 million.

Phase II requires participation of the adjacent landowner. It adds a 4500-foot intermediate-level whitewater channel on the neighboring property and an additional 200 cfs water supply. The operations building, parking, and support areas are expanded proportionally. A budget estimate for this phase is $6.8 million.

Water Supply

Whitewater courses typically use modest amounts of water. This is because they are usually located adjacent to large civil works such as dams and canals where available water is divided among several uses. The amount of water needed for a world-class venue ranges from 500 cfs to 1000 cfs. Less is needed for recreational use. At this stage of study we propose a project that uses up to 600 cfs water for high level competitive events and rafting. Less water, down to 200 cfs, may be sufficient for recreation such as inner tube rides. To operate both channels concurrently, an 800 cfs water supply is needed.

Gravity supply for 800 cfs water is not possible since there is no structure within the Army Corps’ Barkley Lock and Dam project that may be adapted to this use. Permission from the Corps of Engineers to create a new gravity feed structure is highly unlikely. It would also be prohibitively expensive.

To supply water we propose a pump-assisted siphon that draws water from the lake, over the dam and into the whitewater channel. The water then flows by gravity to the end of the channel where it flows into the Cumberland River. The water does not go back into the lake. At summer pool (359’) the system will act as a true siphon, once it has been started by the pumps. At winter pool (354’) some pump assistance will be needed in order to maintain flows. This will entail some energy cost during the low pool months of the fall, winter and spring.

The pump assist siphon is illustrated schematically in figure 2. A budget estimate is $2 million for phase I not including piping.

Since this scheme is neither a pure siphon nor a conventional pumping station, it will require considerable engineering study in order to achieve the goal of minimal energy consumption. The projection of minimal energy cost should be considered provisional at this time.


Steps to Advance the Project

The following areas of inquiry may be undertaken by West Kentucky Corporation and project stakeholders to advance the Barkley site to the next level of feasibility.

Independent Inquiry/Study

Dam Safety: The proposed siphon and excavations near the Barkley Dam need preliminary Corps scrutiny for issues of dam safety and integrity.

Overhead transmission wires: Mapping and design criteria for excavations near overhead wires from Barkley powerhouse are needed.

Cost and availability of water: A seasonal water demand schedule should be developed and submitted for consideration with the Corps of Engineers water allocation study for Barkley Lake.

Sanitary sewer: The site has no sanitary sewer service. The feasibility of a septic or other type of system capable of a peak load of 500 to 1000 visitors per day is needed. Consultation with the Lyon County Health Department should be initiated to identify a cost-effective solution that is compatible with its location within a flood plain.

Participation by adjoining landowners: Contact adjacent landowner(s) for support and potential participation in the project.

Zoning and land use issues: This report should be presented to the authority with jurisdiction for a preliminary opinion on zoning and land use compliance and, in the event of special exceptions or variances, their likelihood of approval.

Preliminary Design

Contingent upon a favorable outcome of the above areas of inquiry, a preliminary design should be commissioned to refine the costs, potential benefits, and impacts. It should include the following topics:


  1. Tasks as needed to satisfy any outstanding concerns from the items above.
  2. Topographic mapping (two-foot interval).
  3. Regulatory flood plain mapping and tailwater elevations at Barkley Dam.
  4. Preliminary design and cost estimate for both phases of the development.
  5. Market study and economic impact study to quantify demand, economic benefits, operational modes, funding, etc.
  6. Level one environmental impact study to identify environmental and cultural resource impacts to the likely and potential project area (the area of project impact must be carefully defined for this purpose).
  7. A preliminary traffic study is needed to determine the amount of intersection and road improvements at Highway 62/641.
  8. Due diligence water quality study: Present regulations allow treated sewage discharges from pleasure craft in the lake. While this has not been a health problem in the past, water quality monitoring should be initiated at the intake point to verify water quality standards for swimming and boating.


The expense of a whitewater course typically is recovered by the boost it gives to the local economy rather than by user fees.

At the Ocoee River in rural Tennessee, site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater slalom event, the impacts are felt in Polk County as well as the surrounding counties and in the adjoining states. However, the only direct revenue from the river is from local and state entertainment taxes on rafting companies and a per-head fee to TVA. There is no charge for private use.

At South Bend Indiana an artificial course constructed in 1984 is the centerpiece of urban renewal. An abandoned industrial canal in a run-down area of town was rehabilitated to provide whitewater recreation. The city considers it to be their best revitalization project due to the positive impact it has had on surrounding property values and tax receipts. Operating the course is evidently not a priority since it is only open for general use boating for one full day and two half days a week in the summer. The main benefit of the course came from increased investment in the neighborhood. This accomplished, there is little added incentive to operate the course.

At the South Platt River in Denver Colorado, a number of low head dams were modified to provide whitewater recreation. This was combined with flood control improvements and the result is that the river front has become one of the hottest real estate markets in the city. The centerpiece of the river is Confluence Park (pictured). This project runs 365 days a year without user fees.

A recent feasibility study for a course in downtown Minneapolis indicated that gate receipts could not recoup capital costs, however they could cover its operation and maintenance. This is should be the goal of a project at West Kentucky as well.


Budget Comparison of Leading Alternatives

The following table compares the major components and total budget of the leading candidates.

What is included in the Budget



Water Supply


Site Development


What is not included in the Budget


Tailwater flooding at Kentucky Dam. Barkley Dam conditions are presumed to be similar at this level of study.

Provisional data supplied by the Army Corps of Engineers-subject to revision


Seasonal overlay on tailwater flooding at Kentucky Dam. Barkley Dam conditions are presumed to be similar at this level of study.

Provisional data supplied by the Army Corps of Engineers-subject to revision


Water flow range for competitive events on artificial courses. The low end is for recreation and the high end is for courses without much gradient. The proposed Barkley site will use between 400 and 600 cfs for competition on the main channel. To operate both channels concurrently, up to 800 cfs may be required.


Vertical drop for whitewater courses. The Barkley site with over forty* feet of fall would be unprecedented and would allow a channel of unequalled length.


*The amount of drop is subject to refinement based upon tailwater (flooding) data. Although the site has around fifty feet of drop in dry summers such as in 1999, it is prudent to perch the course above some flood elevations if possible. As planned the bottom part of the course will be subject to annual inundation.


Relationship between channel gradient and flow. The yellow oval indicates a range for this project.