AUSTIN, TEXAS — Surf’s up from Austin, Texas.
This phrase — heretofore rarely, if ever, uttered — could catch social media by storm in the next few years if Doug Coors, a Colorado descendent of the Coors Brewing family, has his way. Coors, a small-statured, soft-spoken surfer and engineer wants to make major waves in the surf community by bringing the ocean-bound sport inland.
Austin is his first big test.
In early June, Coors officially announced his intentions from the historic Austin Club in the heart of the capital city. A few blocks away, a giant mound of dirt was in the final stages of completion just in front of the Capitol building: the X-Games were about to get underway. Austin, which ostensibly prides itself on “keeping weird” has become a weekend haven for festivals and activities of all kinds — from SXSW, which seems to take up most of March now, to other events as diverse as triathlons for the disabled, biker rallies, and “Eeyore’s Birthday Party.”
While the city sprawls out for miles in central Texas’ hill country and is at least three hours from any coastline, Coors sees it as the best location for what will become North America’s first inland surf park. During the official announcement he attributed that to the fact that Austin is full of sports lovers and creative entrepreneurs. It’s a place known for its willingness to give new ventures a chance, no matter how ambitious. Example A: the recently completed Circuit of The Americas Formula 1 track, the first in the country to be specifically built for F1 races. It is located just down the road from the proposed NLand site.
NLand Surf Park’s lagoon will be the size of nine football fields and create “perfectly tubing” waves every 60 seconds. Most impressively, Coors and his developers say it will only require rainwater to run, even during historic times of drought, such as those that have canvassed Texas for most of the last decade.
“The whole idea for the lagoon itself is that it will be a net-zero water user,” Coors, who founded NLand Surf Park as part of his 15-year pursuit of this wave technology, told ThinkProgress. “I want it to be like surfing on raindrops.”
The 160-acre site, located just outside the city near the Austin–Bergstrom International Airport, will capture as much rainwater as possible and push it through a series of filtration systems and reservoirs, according to Coors, who said the project has been a passion of his for over a decade.
CREDIT: Credit: Kenny Braun
The initial fill of the facility will come from local water sources unless the builders are able to supplement that reserve with onsite rainwater during the construction process. Coors said they had already secured enough water for this undertaking. With central Texas getting doused by record rainfall this spring, reservoir levels have recovered to average levels after years of loss. However, climate models predict a return to drought-like conditions for the long term.
“Our top priority is water and water conservation,” said Coors. “The surf community is very environmentally conscientious and they pride themselves on environmental stewardship. We want to fit in with that as much as possible.”
Casey Gebhard, Chief Financial Officer of NLand Surf Park, reinforced Coors’ sentiments, saying that the surfing culture and its connection with nature is something they “haven’t lost sight of” and that he and Coors want NLand to help educate “folks in the ways of the surfing community.”
“Probably 95 percent of surfers live within a few miles of the ocean,” Gebhard told ThinkProgress. “We expect to create a lot of new surfers by bringing it inland.”
The full lagoon will have 11 surfing areas featuring 1-, 4- and 6-foot waves with each one lasting up to 35 seconds. The undertaking — which in Coors’ own words is a “pretty significant investment” — is entirely a private one, requiring no taxpayer money. Backing for the project is being provided by 9th Street Capital, a Colorado-based private equity firm of which Coors is president.
Margaret J. Gómez, the Travis County Commissioner who oversees the area where the park will be sited, told ThinkProgress in an email that NLand has not asked for any county assistance and that developers will have to meet laws for development, water use, and drainage as well as getting the appropriate building permits.
Spanish-based Wavegarden — started in 2005 when an engineer and an economist decided they wanted to try and bring their true passion of surfing to the masses — is behind the cutting-edge wave technology, which requires far less energy than existing wave generation technologies. Wavegarden’s patented technology is “based on an innovative hydrodynamic Wavefoil and revolutionary wave lagoon design,” according to the company. The only other commercial surf park in the world using this technology is currently under construction in the U.K. as part of Surf Snowdonia. Wavegarden also has a test facility in Spain.
If the park is a success, Coors envisions many more of them. Looking down the line, this could change the surfing community’s entire relationship with nature — from the connection to place to the privileged access many currently enjoy. It could save time, money, and greenhouse gas emissions while also preserving important coastal communities that could be overrun by sport enthusiasts.
It could also cause surfers to lose their environmental connection and make surfing into another urban-centric endeavor, caught up in the rhythms of traffic lights and the rigidity of business hours rather than the unpredictability of mother nature and the serenity of the open sea.
Coors’ vision of a man-made surf park will likely fall somewhere in between. But one thing is certain — there will always be a good wave to catch.
Chad Nelson, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, an NGO that works protect oceans and beaches while still allowing the surf community to enjoy them, told ThinkProgress that he’s heard a “whole range of reactions” about the surf park, “from really positive and excited to negative, that somehow it’s an affront to surfing.”
“I personally feel it’s just another way to recreate,” said Nelson. “I liken these surf parks to indoor rock climbing gyms — great for training. Some people love gyms and others want to get outside and experience the randomness of nature and have a more raw wilderness experience.”
Nelson said that other than siting concerns, the biggest issue with an inland surf park is energy use.
“Water is heavy so moving it around requires a lot of energy,” he said. “In the ocean waves are solar-powered — differential heating of the earth’s surface by the sun creates wind and wind ultimately creates waves.”
When asked about this, Coors said that the park could potentially take advantage of solar power by siting panels on the unused land. He said he’s had discussions with three different solar providers to determine what might be possible.
According to Nelson’s calculus, as far as water use is concerned an inland surf park isn’t much different than a reservoir, wakeboard park, or other recreational water outlets.
“It depends on how much water is really consumed,” he said. “It’s a bit outside of Surfrider’s purview since we are primarily focused on coastal preservation.”
CREDIT: Courtesy of NLand Surf Park
Preserving the coast means confronting climate change and its so-called “evil twin,” ocean acidification. If these two results of elevated greenhouse gas emissions alter coastlines enough, surfers may end up resorting to inland surf parks to catch the best waves anyways. Warm and acidic water could be catastrophic for coral reefs, which give rise to many of the world’s best surf breaks. Sea level rise will also change the way the waves break at popular surf spots.
“Surfers have a lot to lose from the impacts of climate change on the oceans,” said Nelson. “Sea level rise is going to flood coastal areas … and ocean acidification will impact the health of coral reefs, which produce some of the best waves in the world and also support the marine life that makes recreating in the wild ocean an opportunity to connect with nature.”
Ken Tran, a native Austinite and surf lover who recently relocated to California, told ThinkProgress that groups like the Surfrider foundation — whose projects range from “legal defenses of public access to clean water projects and beach clean-ups” — embody the environmental consciousness that almost every surfer develops as part of their connection with the ocean.
“I don’t see a private-enterprise inland water park generating the same kind of culture of stewardship,” he said. “Lots of surfers hate commercialized surf ventures like this and the pro surfing tour because they reduce surfing to a one-dimensional ‘extreme sport’, like the X-Games on water.”
Tran sees the flip side, too.
“You can certainly make the case that surfing in the ocean is harmful for the environment,” he said. “Driving our trucks and vans down long highways in search of breaks to ride our polyester-glazed Styrofoam boards on definitely has a negative environmental impact.”
“All this being said, if and when the place opens, I’ll probably check it out,” said Tran.