Iowa City officials aiming to revitalize riverfront

BY ALY BROWN | JULY 02, 2012 6:30 AM

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Though plans are still up in the air, Iowa City officials are stirring up local interest with proposals for a new river recreation area and possible white-water rafting attraction for the Burlington Street dam.

The Environmental Protection Agency provided a $60,000 urban-waters grant to Iowa City to study how modifying the dam will improve the river habitat, flood mitigation, and the revitalization of the Riverfront Crossings District, according to an EPA press release.

Bill Ehm, the state Department of Natural Resources Environmental Services Division administrator, said the project matched the department's mission to conserve Iowa's natural resources.

"We have a history of segregating our rivers with dams and levees and pretending they are not there until disasters such as inevitable flooding occurs," he wrote in an email. "This project has the potential to reconnect people and the floodplain to the river so that they can live in harmony."

The grant is part of the EPA's Urban Waters Program, an initiative to assist communities in reuniting with urban waters and the surrounding area. The agency has partnered with the University of Iowa to bring public awareness to the value of Iowa's water resources, according to the release.

More Iowa river towns are reconnecting with adjacent waterfronts and creating river recreation jobs, according to a March Department of Natural Resources press release. Recreation areas along 73 state river and stream segments support more than 6,350 jobs and generate $824 million in sales and $130 million in personal income.

City and state officials met last week to discuss feasible alternatives for the area with the public, including constructing a limestone-stepped slope to improve safety and allow for a possible white-water rafting park.

UI graduate student Van Schaeffer said he is excited about the possibilities.

"I think it is a spectacular idea," he said. "Growing up in Pennslyvania, I did a lot of white-water rafting. I think it's a lot of fun, the students would love it, and it is a great team-building activity."

But Steve Long, city community development coordinator, said nothing is set in stone.

"What we are proposing is to basically build a long, slow drop down using limestone," he said. "It will be safer and will also allow fish to have access north of the dam."

Long said there have been a lot of requests for recreation areas along the stretch of river between Burlington Street and Benton Street.

Ehm said five people have died since the mid-60s as a result of the dangerous low-head dam.

"This project has the potential of dramatically improving safety on the Iowa River in Iowa City," he said.

Iowa Natural Resources encourages dam owners to remove or modify low-head dams, or "drowning machines," according to a Natural Resources brochure. The dams can trap fallen branches and debris, along with victims, in recirculating currents below the dam.

The step system could allow for safer rafting or boating over the dam while preserving the steam tunnels and infrastructure running through the dam.

Ben Fish, UI assistant director of utilities and energy management, said the department is not concerned about damage to dam utilities.

"We have been involved from the start," he said. "To be honest, there really isn't anything that we would have to change from what they have proposed so far."

Long says officials won't know what will be implemented on the dam until plans are released, but the city will request proposals for study consultants this month.

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