Your Village: Can you canoe the Iowa River?

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Illustration by Blair Gauntt

I really want to know why no one ever canoes on the Iowa River. Is it because it’s too dirty? —Corey, Coralville, via Facebook

If you’ve never seen people canoeing on the Iowa River, it’s possible you’ve been looking in the wrong places, because a lot of people canoe it every year. One reason they can be hard to spot is that the river only has one designated water trail in Johnson County.

The trail starts at Sturgis Ferry Park in Iowa City (1700 S Riverside Dr), which has a boat ramp that allows easy access to the river. From there, it’s a 9.25-mile float down to the next landing at Hills Access, a 40-acre park, which, despite its name, is also in Iowa City (4210 520th St SE), not Hills.

Adventurous and determined canoers can follow the water trail all the way to where the Iowa meets the Mississippi River at Ferry Landing in Louisa County. It’s a journey of approximately 73 miles, with six river access points between Sturgis Ferry Park and Ferry Landing.

Sturgis Ferry Park to Hills Access is also the route of the Great Iowa River Race, which will take place on June 8. The race has two divisions: one for the people who are just interested in fun on the river and one for competitive types who want a serious race. (Registration for the event closes on June 4.)

Of course, when it comes to the Iowa River, canoeing and dirty water isn’t an either/or, it’s a both/and. In the most recent Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) assessment of “impaired waters,” the Iowa River is listed as “impaired or threatened,” due to bacterial contamination (rated as “slight”), fish kills due to natural causes (also “slight”) and potential biological impairments due to unknown causes (rated “moderate”). The river water samples were collected between the Burlington Street Dam in Iowa City and the Coralville Reservoir Dam.

It isn’t surprising the river has problems. According to the DNR, more than half of the rivers, streams and lakes in Iowa are polluted. The biggest contributor to the state’s water quality problems is agriculture.

The entire landmass of Iowa is only 36 million acres, and 25 million of them are planted with just two crops: corn and soybeans. Both crops require fertilizer, largely composed of nitrogen and phosphorus, and fertilizer run-off from the fields is a major source of water pollution. And the state’s industrial-scale hog farms have waste lagoons that regularly overflow or leak into waterways.

Addressing agricultural pollution will require effective state action, something unlikely to happen while Republicans control the legislature and the governor’s office. Iowa Republicans prefer a voluntary approach to regulating pollution.

But people interested in preserving and improving the Iowa River can participate in the annual Iowa River Clean-up on Sept. 14. Volunteers, both on foot and floating, have collected trash along the river between Sturgis Ferry Park and Hills Access. The event’s been held six times since it started in 2011, and it has collected over 50 tons of garbage, including more than 900 discarded tires.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 262.

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