At the water's edge: Communities search for right balance in living along the river

Communities trying to strike balance connecting and protecting citizens and water

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A riverfront park in Iowa City, a creekside development in Coralville, numerous projects along the water in Cedar Rapids.

Eastern Iowa communities hit hard in the Flood of 2008 — and threatened again this year — have not shied away from waterfront development in recent years. They also are aware of the risks.

Many communities try to strike a balance between connecting residents with the water, which often features prominently in a city or county, while also being cautious of the dangers that presents.

“I don’t think there’s a single answer there” on what the right balance is, says Eric Tate, a University of Iowa geography professor. “If your river is flood-prone, you need to take that into account.”

He studies the social dimensions of flooding and has been an environmental engineer who helped build models calculating the economic and physical damage of flooding.

Tate also grew up in San Antonio, where the famed River Walk is a national model for bringing people to a river. It was done, he says, with a lot of economic development and placement of businesses along the river.

If you go up the highway to Austin, Texas, there are a lot of greenways and trails along the river that are heavily used, which he considers a success, too.

An eye to the future

The same dynamic can be found in Eastern Iowa.

Cedar Rapids has a multitude of projects, public and private, either completed or planned near the Cedar River, including City Hall, a proposed casino and an amphitheater.

Developer Fred Timko says it’s not realistic to avoid rebuilding along the Cedar River, because the waterway cuts through the heart of town.

“You’d blade off all the downtown,” he says.

He’s renovating a bank building at 101 Third Ave. SW into offices and a restaurant, and building condos next door. The condominium building is in the 100-year flood plain but will be elevated half a foot above that mark.

Timko is also the developer of Bottleworks Condos on the edge of New Bohemia Village. The building was being gutted in 2008, when the flood hit, causing about $1 million in damage.

The Cedar River’s rise a couple of weeks ago has not changed his view, but he says that should lead to a renewed effort to pass a local-option sales tax to pay for a flood-protection system for both sides of the river.

Cedar Rapids and many other Eastern Iowa communities have already completed some flood-mitigation projects that officials say worked well in this year’s flooding.

In Coralville, some of those efforts are ongoing, and the city is partnering with a developer for a $24 million residential and commercial project along Clear Creek. A berm and an elevated site are intended to protect it from flooding.

In Iowa City, the most visible redevelopment plan takes more of a recreational approach. The city hopes to bring more people to the Iowa River by modifying the Burlington Street dam to improve public safety, river access, the wildlife habitat and possibly adding a white-water rafting course.

The city also is encouraging a major redevelopment of the area southeast of the dam, known as Riverfront Crossings. Part of the plan calls for a 26-acre park. City officials have said any commercial and residential development would need to be above the flood plain.

“I think the flood really brought a respect and an awareness of the river,” says Steve Long, Iowa City’s community development coordinator.

A white-water course opened on the Cedar River in Charles City in northern Iowa in 2011. City Administrator Tom Brownlow says license plates from other counties and states are now a common sight in town, and those people stay and eat there.

The river flooded there in 2008, and again to a lesser extent this spring, but Brownlow says most residents view it as an asset.

“Here, people think of the river as one of the defining features of the community,” he says. “It runs right through the middle of Charles City.”

Rivers are economic engines

Rivers are big business in Iowa. A 2012 study by Iowa State University researchers found that 73 river segments in Iowa supported more than 6,300 jobs and accounted for $520.4 million in direct spending annually.

Rosalyn Lehman, executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival, a Des Moines-based organization that promotes restoring and protecting rivers, says investing in rivers is advantageous for local and state economies.

She also says that her organization believes it’s important to let a river be a river and avoid overdevelopment, putting up levees and stuffing banks with riprap.

“We can’t keep building up to the riverside and wonder, ‘Well, why did this property flood out?’ ” she says.

Jones County Conservation Director Larry Gullett has tried to make the Maquoketa River more visitor-friendly while also being conscious of the effects of development.

Before designing a feature — for example, a parking lot, restroom facility or trail — in the flood plain, officials study the site when the water is high so they know how it will handle flooding, he says.

“We may study an area for years before we do something with it … and we design our infrastructure to be compatible with the flows,” Gullett says.

Perhaps no one knows more about coexisting with a river than the people at Lake Delhi. The dam on the Maquoketa River there was breached in 2010, draining the 400-acre lake. The lake was an important economic engine for the area, and the more than 800 homes around it have decreased in value and the hundreds of people who used to flock to the lake on summer weekends now go elsewhere.

Supporters hope to have a new dam and the lake filling up in 2015. A structure is being designed to support twice the water flow and to better handle runoff from farmland upstream, says Steve Leonard, president of the Lake Delhi Combined Recreational Facility and Water Quality District.

“There’s a balance of economic activity and any eventual flooding,” he says.  

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