Iowa City may modify dam, open up Iowa River to recreation

Options include a whitewater rafting park, fishing and boating areas

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IOWA CITY – The stretch of the Iowa River near the Burlington Street dam may be opened up to recreation in the coming years, including boating and perhaps whitewater rafting

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded the city of Iowa City a $60,000 grant to study modifying the dam “for improved water quality, flood mitigation, public safety and public access” to the river, according to an EPA announcement this week.

Steve Long, Iowa City’s community development coordinator, said the eventual project could include using rock to create a stair-step feature that would allow people to go over the dam in a boat or perhaps a tube.

A whitewater rafting park is one of the ideas under consideration, although Geoff Fruin, assistant to the city manager, said nothing has been settled and public input will be sought on the plan.

A news conference with federal and local officials is scheduled for Friday, when more details are expected to be shared.

The Burlington Street dam is a low-head dam, also called a roller dam because the water flows over the top of it. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources says these are known as “drowning machines” because they are hard to see from upstream and are difficult to escape.

Five people have died in the waters of the Burlington Street dam since 1965, according to the Iowa Whitewater Coalition.

Because of that danger, there is almost no boating near the dam. People do fish from the shore.

"It’s an interesting site,” Long said. “If you look at the river, it’s underutilized.”

Some sort of mitigation effort, like a stair-step rock formation, could allow for boats and fishing on the dam, Long said. Fish also could make their way upstream. Riverbank stabilization also will be part of the study.

The dam would not be removed, Long said, because the University of Iowa’s water intake is just to the north and the structure is needed to ensure an adequate water level.

The project would support the city’s planned redevelopment of the Riverfront Crossings neighborhood southeast of the dam. Part of that work, which has benefited from another EPA grant, has included studying the possibility of creating a 26-acre riverfront park.

“Having an urban park is great, but it’s even better if we can open up access to the river itself," Fruin said.

The dam study could take up to six months to finish, and going through the permit process for any work may take another year, Long said.

The state has committed $1 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1 to be used on low-head dam safety projects.

In Charles City, a low-head dam was lowered and, with the help of state funding, a whitewater rafting park opened last year.

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