Cedar Rapids considers a major river recreation project

Cedar River — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The City of Cedar Rapids is still considering plans to revitalize the Cedar River, possibly turning it into an amenity capable of attracting visitors from around the state and Midwest.

At its April 13 meeting, the Cedar Rapids City Council received a presentation on a potential $14.6 million project that would modify the Five-in-One Dam to offer both a whitewater and a flatwater channel for boaters and paddlers that would be separated by an island for spectators.

“Another amazing recreational opportunity for Cedar Rapids and I believe that it really will draw people here and draw people here to move here to live here and work here, so it’s an exciting project,” Mayor Brad Hart said during last week’s meeting.

Rendering of the proposal that would create a whitewater channel and a flatwater channel in the Cedar River, as well as an island for spectators. — rendering courtesy of the City of Cedar Rapids

The proposal, which is still in its early stages, is the result of a river recreation feasibility study that began in late 2019 after the city council approved a contract with Crane Associates worth almost $150,000. Crane worked with River Restoration, a Colorado company, and Anderson Bogert, a local civil engineering firm.

The process involved public outreach, a study of the potential economic impacts of river recreation and a physical feasibility report, city planner Sylvia Brueckert told the council during its meeting. The study looked at the entire stretch of the Cedar River that goes through the city.

“Some of the key considerations in this study were creating an accessible recreation opportunity that’s safe for a broad range of users,” Brueckert said. “Of course, compatibility with the flood control system was very important, as well as how it complements the Greenway Parks Plan. In addition to the on-river portion of the amenities, this study also looked at how this can amplify onshore amenities and contribute to economic development.”

The water quality of the river was not brought up during the presentation, but Brueckert told Little Village in an email that the study did look at the issue.

Brueckert said the study found that the river is “safe for recreational uses that include canoeing, kayaking and swimming, among other recreational activities, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.”

About 45 percent of Iowa’s bodies of water were on last year’s draft list of impaired waters compiled by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Lakes, rivers and streams are listed when they don’t meet at least one standard for their intended use, whether it is drinking, recreation or supporting aquatic life.

While parts of the Cedar River were on the impaired list, segments of the river between Vinton and Cedar Rapids were removed from the 2020 list because water monitoring showed pH levels had fallen to a safe range, the Gazette reported.

Residents had the opportunity at the beginning of last year to participate in a survey for the project and share what kind of potential recreational options they would like to see. Brueckert didn’t say how many people responded to the survey during her presentation, but mentioned that 85 percent of respondents saw the Cedar River as beautiful but underutilized.

Boating, fishing and kayaking were the most popular in-water river recreation activities, with biking and walking selected as the most preferred riverside activities. The riverside activities were more popular overall than the in-river activities, Brueckert said.

The consultants provided three conceptual designs. The first was two bypass channels that would go around the Five-in-One Dam, with one channel being for whitewater and the other for flatwater. The estimated construction cost on this project is $28.4 million.

The second design included one gate that would be modified to allow bypass through the dam and would include a whitewater feature. The project had an estimated cost of $11.9 million.

The third design was a hybrid of the two designs and is what the consultants ultimately recommended. The design includes one gate modified to allow bypass with a separate channel. One channel would be for whitewater and the other would be for flatwater.

Brueckert said the idea recommended “creates an enjoyable and safe experience for a wide range of users, from beginners to people who have a lot of experience with whitewater.” She added that the proposal is more cost-effective, space-effective and unique compared to the other two ideas.

It will also be important to design the space so it’s enjoyable for spectators and events, Brueckert added.

Rendering of the proposal that would create a whitewater channel and a flatwater channel in the Cedar River, as well as an island for spectators. — rendering courtesy of the city of Cedar Rapids

The proposal is exciting enough to attract a secondary market, according to Brueckert. The economic feasibility analysis of the study defined the primary market as within a 125-mile radius of Cedar Rapids, which includes the eastern part of the state all the way to Des Moines. The secondary market has a 250-mile radius and includes a number of large cities, including Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago.

“One of the interesting findings in this report was how big the jump in population is if we’re able to attract that secondary market,” Brueckert said, laying out an optimistic scenario. “In that primary market, we have about a 3 million-people population there. If we’re able to attract the secondary market, that broadens it to almost 30 million people because of the major metropolitan areas that are within that distance.”

If a Cedar River attraction could draw the number of visitors from the broader region the authors of the study envision, the economic impact of the project would increase more than four-fold, to between $5.4 and $11.5 million, the report concludes.

“This understanding is something that will be a key part of how we designed the whitewater amenities so that we’re getting something that can attract that secondary market,” Brueckert said.

Councilmember Ashley Vanorny expressed her excitement about the proposal and said it’s a “long time coming.”

“I feel like this really marries all of the things that we’ve heard our residents speak about,” she said. “It brings in that healthy relationship with the river, and it allows for recreation that people have been wanting.”

The next steps include additional public engagement on the project, as well as exploring funding options and continuing to refine the design, according to Bill Micheel, the city’s community development assistant director. There is no set construction timeline yet.

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