Iowa City City Council to vote on dam proposal


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A revitalized Iowa Riverfront may be coming sooner than expected.

The Iowa City City Council will vote on whether to proceed with a particular design group for the Burlington Street dam proposal at the next council meeting.

The city staff has recommended that the council authorize it to sign a consultant agreement with Whitewater Design Group of Denver.

The group submitted a proposal for the Burlington Street dam, which the city hopes to modify for safety improvements, riverbank stabilization, fish passage, and educational and recreational opportunities.

The dam is a “low-head” dam, also called a weir. Iowa Natural Resources encourages dam owners to remove or modify low-head dams, also known as “drowning machines,” according to a Natural Resources brochure. The dams can trap fallen branches and debris, along with victims, in recirculating currents below them.

The proposal was one of three submitted to the city; it involves the construction of a new dam in addition to developing recreational areas for swimming, kayaking, and other water activities, as well as creating an area for fish to pass through.

Steve Long, the Iowa City community development coordinator, said the combination of recreational facilities and fishing areas makes sense for the proposal.

“The two complement each other,” he said. “The design would create areas where fish would congregate and improve their habitat, and in the same area there may be a jetty for fishing.”

The design and engineering phase will include public input and acquiring construction documents, and officials project it to take about 18 months, with a similar amount of time allotted for the construction.

Long hopes more people will use the river after the project is completed.

“Whether walking, biking, paddling, or fishing, [this proposal] is about opening up the river,” he said. “It’s really an underutilized river, and we’re hoping for lots of input.”

The cost for the consultation is $360,141, which the city plans to pay for primarily with grants. The city has applied for and received grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, Iowa Great Places Program, and the Iowa Natural Resources Low-Head Dam Safety Program. Iowa City has authorized up to $49,000 in city funds for the project.

Several other cities in Iowa have undergone dam modifications, including Charles City, which transformed its low-head dam into a whitewater rafting area and surrounding park.

The Charles City Riverfront Park opened in July 2011, and it has been open year round since. There’s no charge for the public, but surrounding areas have enjoyed increased business.

“We see traffic at local restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses around the area,” said Ginger Wiliams, the tourism coordinator at the Charles City Chamber of Commerce. “There’s a local outfitter renting out inner tubes, and that’s been profitable for them.”

Williams said the Riverfront Park has been well-received by the city.

“It makes the whole river area more approachable and inviting,” she said. “More people are drawn to the river, and there’s always activity down there. It’s an exciting element of community attraction in itself.”

Tom Brownlow, the city administrator for Charles City, said the park wasn’t used as much during the drought, but activity is usually high.

“Before we joked that the park was there for us to mow the grass,” he said. “But when we have good water flow, it’s a lot of fun; we’ve had people here seven days a week.”

Brownlow said the costs for the whitewater aspect of the Riverfront Park project were around $900,000, the biggest cost coming from construction of the whitewater area and dam modifications.

As for how such a project would work in Iowa City, Brownlow thinks creating a recreational space would be great for the area.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “The community is going to enjoy it once you get it built.”

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