Kayakers paddle the upper stretch of Lake Springfield, a section of which might be transformable into a whitewater kayak park. (Photo by Wes Johnson)

Could part of Lake Springfield — or the James River that feeds it — be transformed into a whitewater kayaking park?

A consultant hired by the city of Springfield will be tasked to find out. 

Now that the James River Power Station has been almost completely shut down, the city and Springfield-Greene County Parks are teaming up to look at what kind of new recreation opportunities the 1,000-acre Lake Springfield area might offer.

Thanks to an $800,000 federal economic development grant for “adaptive reuse” of decommissioned coal-fired energy plants, the City will hire a consultant to research and recommend options for the Lake Springfield area.  

Paddlers float under an old railroad bridge on the James River Water Trail arm of Lake Springfield. (Photo by Sony Hocklander)

City Utilities also chipped in $60,000, the city’s Environmental Services department provided $40,000 and the Hatch Foundation provided $100,000.

With $1 million to work with, there are a lot of possibilities to explore.

“We want to see what’s feasible first; make the lake cleaner and increase the recreation potential on it,” said Olivia Hough, senior planner/Brownfields coordinator in the city’s Economic Vitality Department. “We’re looking at it as a blank slate. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for creativity, to do some things that are innovative.”

A whitewater kayak park might be one of those innovative ideas.

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Four chimneys hit the ground, but electricity is still being made at the James River Power Station. Lake Springfield is the subject to a million-dollar study, but it may be months or even years before Springfield sees a return on its investment.

What would the kayaking whitewater park be like?

Jeff Smith, senior parks planner, said the consultant will analyze the Lake Springfield dam, as well as areas above and below it, to see if a whitewater park could be feasible.

“With the dam, we could look at taking one section of it and modifying it into a sloped, tiered waterfall with gradual drops,” Smith said. “Another option could be to create a whitewater recreation area a little further upstream. We do have enough flow on the James River to look at some options.”

Whitewater paddling parks are becoming more common in the Midwest. Siloam Springs, Arkansas, has one that’s open to paddlers of all skill levels.

Oklahoma City has a multimillion-dollar whitewater park that offers competition-grade whitewater features.

A whitewater park on the James River would require some kind of obstacles to squeeze the river’s flow into an area where paddlers could experience faster flows, steeper drops and skill challenges.

Part of the consultant’s work will be a hydrologic analysis of the lake and the James River. Since the dam was built in 1957, sediment has been slowly washing in, and there are areas where the sediment has nearly filled in parts of the lake.  

Sediment could be dredged out, but that would stir up environmental issues from farming residue that’s flowed into the lake for decades. 

The lake already has a caution to anglers against eating more than one serving of catfish or carp per month because of PCB contamination. The hydrologic and environmental assessment will be a key part of what kind of water-contact recreation can be done at the lake.

Smith, however, remains optimistic.

Is there enough community support?

Lake Springfield. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Once the consultant contract is in place, likely by the end of July, Smith said the next step will be to get community input about ways to improve recreation at Lake Springfield.

“Community input definitely is a huge part of this,”  he said. “That and the economic impact this could bring to the area.”  

The city will send a news release sometime in August inviting community comments about the plan. The city already has a website up about the whitewater project.

The idea of a whitewater kayaking park already has the backing of Springfield-based Ozark Mountain Paddlers.

OMP President Gary Tombridge said Smith and others gave his group an overview of recreation possibilities at the lake, including a whitewater park.

“Our club totally supports this,” Tombridge said. “There’s plenty of interest in this area for a fairly simple whitewater park. There’s a huge demand from people wanting to learn how to kayak safely, and this could be a good place to do some training and do some course work.”

Smith questions where the money would come from to build such a park because construction money isn’t part of the $1 million consultant analysis. But Smith said he’s on board to explore possibilities.

“I do think Springfield could support something like this,” Tombridge said. “We’re waiting to hear more, waiting to see what the next steps are.”

Hough, the senior city planner, said Lake Springfield could become a recreation bookend for Springfield. There’s already a new marina, 30 miles of new mountain biking and hiking trails and fishing opportunities at CU’s Fellows Lake six miles north of town. 

Lake Springfield could be the launch pad for outdoors in the Ozarks on the south side of town, she said. 

The consultant’s final report, with recreation recommendations and potential costs, should be finished by August 2024, Hough said.  

“We’re hoping to capitalize on our existing natural resources,” she added. “People always say they love opportunities to interact with water. We want to look at ways of making that more accessible.”

Wes Johnson

Wes Johnson has been a journalist for more than 40 years and has lived in Springfield since 2004. He’s an avid sailor, hiker and nature lover. Have a good outdoors story idea? Johnson can be reached at 417-631-2168 or by email at wesdjohnson66@gmail.com. More by Wes Johnson