116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
OXFORD — With the weather warming up, it’s time for another busy summer season full of fishing, hiking and camping — and the beginning of more construction — at F.W. Kent Park in western Johnson County.
Kent Park, on Highway 6 in Oxford, is free and open to the public. “It's kind of a hidden gem,” Park Ranger Aaron Ohlsen said.
Kent Park has seen a record number of visitors during the pandemic, and the county anticipates the high number to continue with Johnson County’s growing population.
With the park’s increased use, the county is investing $3.4 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to replace the campground shower house and wastewater system, which also will have a positive impact on water quality in the lake.
The Johnson County Conservation Department also has plans in the coming years to continue making the park more accessible for visitors, including a beach renovation.
“The main thing we're concerned about is that when people come out here, they have a good time with their families, and we want them to enjoy the park,” Conservation Director Larry Gullett said.
Plans years in the works
Johnson County Conservation identified several projects at Kent Park in 2015, including replacing the campground shower house. Construction documents were completed in 2017, but the project was put on hold until there was funding available.
While waiting for project funding for the shower house, Kent Park lake underwent a $3.3 million restoration effort after warnings of bacteria and algae. The lake was drained in April 2017 and refilled in May 2019.
About 130,000 cubic yards of sediment was removed, The Gazette reported. After the lake was dredged, four underwater fish reefs were built and modified to encourage fish spawning. Officials also planted aquatic plants to help trap and recycle nutrients that make it into the water and stocked the lake with different types of fish.
Following the lake restoration, Gullett said, the conservation department noticed one of the bays collecting drainage was full of algae.
“What we found out is that the campground shower house wastewater system was exceeding its design capacity, and we were leaking nutrients from the wastewater system in the campground into the lake,” Gullett said.
The dump station for those camping in recreational vehicles also was exceeding its design capacity, Gullett said.
The old wastewater system was designed to handle 5,000 gallons of water a week, Gullett said. Due to the increased use of the campground, the system was dealing with 5,800 gallons per day.
The conservation department had the completed construction documents for the shower house and wastewater system, so it went to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.
After months of discussion and working through various proposals, the supervisors allocated $3.4 million in APRA dollars for improvements at Kent Park’s campground.
The funds will be used to replace the campground shower house and restroom, construct a new wastewater system and dig a new well to provide drinking water to the campground.
“When the supervisors made their final decisions … we were really excited because it's a such an expensive project, but it needs to be done for environmental quality,” Gullett said.
New shower house
The Kent Park campground opened for the season in mid-April but the shower house is not available because it is getting prepared for removal. That is the most significant change so far for campers this season.
The old shower house was small and outdated, especially for serving 86 campsites, Gullett said. It had one toilet, sink and shower on the men’s side with another toilet, sink and shower on the women’s side.
The new shower house designed by Shive-Hattery will have 12 individual shower and restroom facilities, which will better serve the needs of campers, Gullett said.
Potable water still is available at the dump station and at hydrants throughout the campground. The dump station remains open for use. The latrines around the campground are also available for use and are not part of the renovation project.
The intent is to keep the campground open as much as possible, but there might be two or three weeks when the campground is shut down due to construction, Gullett said.
If all goes as planned, Gullet said the new shower house could be completed by about May 1, 2023. There are concerns, however, about supply chain issues and increased cost of materials.
The conservation department will communicate any closures by social media and a news release on the county’s website. People can also call the office at 319-645-2315.
Increase in visitors
Gullett said visitation at Kent Park has increased since the lake restoration effort and the pandemic.
The annual visitation at Kent Park was about 170,000 people a year before the lake restoration. The first year of the pandemic, in 2020, visitation nearly doubled to 320,000 people for the year.
“That first year of the pandemic there was a lot of people rediscovering the outdoors,” Gullett said, adding the increase in use was a trend parks across the state and country saw.
Then, in 2021, visitation came down to 280,000 people for the year, but still higher than before the lake restoration.
“At the same time that we finished our lake restoration, which increases visitation, the pandemic hit, which caused an increase in visitation, which is a good thing. That's why we're here,” Gullett said.
Ohlsen, the ranger, said the campgrounds have also been extremely popular during the pandemic. The campground was full a record amount of times, he said. While it’s free to visit the park, campsites are $20 a night and available on a first-come, first-served basis, according to the park’s website.
Last year, use of the campground increased 12 percent compared with 2020, according to the conservation department’s annual report. The campground was open in 2021 from April 9 to Nov. 14.
"It was just a popular place to be,“ Ohlsen said.
Future plans for increased accessibility
There are also plans to improve the beach at Kent Park, as well as improve the park’s infrastructure to make it more accessible.
“We're hoping that the campground shower house is the first major project that will address some of these issues, not only water quality but our new shower house is going to be completely ADA accessible,” Gullett said.
The department has construction documents for the beach renovation. Not only will the renovation make the area more accessible, it also will have a “profound positive impact on water quality, too,” Gullett said.
The beach renovation, Gullett said, would be the next big project at Kent Park after the shower house and dump station are completed.
In addition, the department is working on a $5 million project to connect the Clear Creek Trail to Kent Park, which should be done in the next two to three years, Gullett said. It is a 2.5-mile extension.
“We hope to have that trail connected here, so you'll be able to ride your bike from Iowa City or Coralville, all the way out through Tiffin and all the way to Kent Park,” Gullett said.
The department is trying to raise the final $1.5 million for the project. Of the already secured funding, there is about $1 million in grants and $2.5 million in conservation bonds.
“The initial thoughts have been 20 years in the making,” Brad Freidhof, conservation program manager, previously told The Gazette. “These trails are really about connecting communities and amenities. Kent Park is one of the premier parks in the state of Iowa.”
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