Iowa City may hire white-water rafting firm to design dam, river project

By early next fall, the city expects to receive two designs

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IOWA CITY – Iowa City is taking another step toward the possible creation of a white-water rafting course through the University of Iowa campus.

The City Council is scheduled to vote Dec. 18 to hire a firm to perform engineering and design work related to modifying the Burlington Street dam on the Iowa River.

City, state and federal officials said last summer they were interested in altering the dam to improve public safety, water quality, riverbank stability, fish habitat and to create recreational opportunities.

City staff is recommending the council hire Denver-based McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group. As its name suggests, it specializes in white-water parks. But that is not the main purpose of the project, said Steve Long, Iowa City’s community development coordinator.

“Improving access (to the river) and public safety are definitely the most important features,” he said.

The Burlington Street dam is about 9 feet tall and is what is known as a low-head or roller dam, with the water rolling over the top of it. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources calls them "drowning machines" because they are hard to see from upstream and are difficult to escape. They also prevent boats from using that section of the waterway.

McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group would be paid $360,140. The city would pay $49,000 of that, with federal and state grants covering most of the rest.

Design and engineering would take about 18 months, Long said. By early next fall, the city expects to receive two design alternatives. One would address wildlife habitat, public safety, riverbank stability and access, Long said. The other would have all of that plus the recreation component.

Public meetings would be held to help determine what route the project should take, Long said.

There is not yet an estimate for how much it would cost to modify the dam and do any other work, like add a white-water rafting course.

Officials have said they envision the downstream portion of the dam being built up with limestone blocks to create a stair-step feature that makes it safe for certain boats and tubes to go over the dam.

The project complements the city’s long-term plan to redevelop the area southeast of where Burlington Street meets the river, known as the Riverfront Crossings District.

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