IOWA CITY – Iowa City is a river town, but near the heart of town people don’t interact much with the water.
Local and federal officials want to change that.
“This city was founded here because this river was here,” said Karl Brooks, administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 7 office in Kansas City, Kan.
He was joined by about 25 other people at a news conference Friday to talk in more detail about plans, first reported earlier this week, to modify the Burlington Street dam on the Iowa River.
That structure is a low-head dam, and the water rolling over the top prevents boating and is a drowning hazard, causing at least five deaths since it was built in 1906.
The city received a $60,000 grant from the EPA to study altering the dam to improve public safety, water quality, riverbank stability, fish habitat and create recreational opportunities.
Officials say recreation would be more of a side benefit, but it arguably would get the most attention from the public, especially if one of the ideas being floated, a white-water rafting course, becomes a reality.
Steve Long, Iowa City’s community development coordinator, said the University of Iowa, which also is playing a role in the study, may expand its nearby recreation center toward the river and allow access to the river from it.
Nothing has been decided yet, and ideas will be sought from the public, but right now officials 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, Long said.
Not everyone is excited by the possibilities.
The water immediately downstream of the dam is a popular fishing spot, and Bill Liston of Coralville was there Friday morning, as he said he has been nearly every day the past 12 years. He had his line cast while two channel catfish he’d already caught were in the water hooked to a rope tied to an empty cat litter bucket.
He said he’d want to see the plans for the dam but is worried any work would harm what he considers a prime fishing location for catfish, various kinds of bass, northern pike, walleye and others.
“I’ve never found a hole so hot as right here,” said Liston, 57.
The fish habitat would be one of the focuses of the study. The dam work also would improve water quality and flood mitigation, officials said.
The dam is part of a larger focus along the floodplain to slow down the water with wetlands and other efforts, said Steve Kovac, Water Division branch manager at EPA Region 7.
The dam project also would complement the city’s plans for a 26-acre park along the river to the south. The park would include wetlands to absorb flood waters, Long said.
Brooks said Iowa City’s project was ranked first among 21 proposals submitted to EPA Region 7, which covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. Four received an EPA Urban Waters Grant.
The city will send out a request for proposals in July to find a consultant to conduct the study, Long said. The study may take six months and the permit process for the dam work another year, he said.The city also will need to find funding for the work, with federal, state and local resources all possibilities. There is no cost estimate for the dam modification because it’s not yet known what will be done.