White-water rafting in downtown Cedar Rapids? Recreation study could launch big changes

Future of 5-in-1 Dam, new white-water course would be examined on Cedar River

Dave Hillman of Cedar Rapids runs the slalom course during the June 29 Iowa Games kayak competition at Charles City Whit
Dave Hillman of Cedar Rapids runs the slalom course during the June 29 Iowa Games kayak competition at Charles City Whitewater at Riverfront Park in Charles City. The Cedar Rapids City Council is scheduled to vote on hiring a consultant that would examine adding reactional opportunities like a white-water course on the Cedar River. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Imagine the Cedar River without the roller dam south of downtown by the Alliant Energy plant, and maybe even without the 5-in-1 Dam below Interstate 380’s S-curve.

Imagine kayakers, tubers and standup paddleboarders bobbing through a white-water course flowing through downtown Cedar Rapids. Imagine what recreational opportunities would be created for boaters, anglers and paddlers if the river were dredged.

“I’m really excited about this because we’ve been talking about this for years,” said City council member Ann Poe, noting boaters have only about a mile to play with above the 5-in-1 Dam. “We’ve got all these great ideas, but we, at this point, don’t know what we can do. As a river rat — a self-described river rat — I’m really looking forward to this report.”

City staff are recommending awarding a $149,721 contract to Crane Associates Inc. of Burlington, Vt., for a River Recreation Feasibility and Implementation Study. The Cedar Rapids City Council will consider approving the contract during its regular meeting at noon Tuesday at City Hall, 101 First Street SE.

“The main goal of this is to determine what is the best river recreation options for Cedar Rapids,” said Sylvia Bochner, a city planner working on the project.

The study would look at the dams, dredging and host of other factors and determine what is feasible, how much implementation would cost, how it could be phased in over time and what sort of economic impact the activities could create. Technical analysis would include river conditions, ecology, hydrology, water volumes and flow, Bochner said.

Crane, which included River Restoration, of Carbondale, Colo., and Anderson Bogert, a civil engineering and surveying firm in Cedar Rapids, on its team, would create in-depth maps. The consultants’ work would begin this month and wrap up next August.


Concepts included in the Greenway Park Plan, which was created after the 2008 flood for how to use green space the city largely acquired through buyouts along the river, and compatibility with a permanent flood control system would guide the study.

“The scope does really focus on the river, but they are looking at the greenway and connectivity and how people are accessing the river,” said Jennifer Pratt, Cedar Rapids community development director.

River-based communities around the country have undertaken different types of projects to better engage their waterways. In Iowa, Manchester, Charles City and Elkader and others have removed low-head dams to create white water features popular for kayakers, standup paddleboarders and tubers.

In Manchester, the Maquoketa River flows through the middle of town. In 2015, after removal of a 9-foot dam, the city opened a free, self-guided white water feature with six drops where kids of all ages up to adults can float down an 800-foot span and simply walk back on a paved path to the beginning. Some kids navigate through in life jackets. The project cost $1.8 million.

Franklin Street Brewery opened on the riverbank, along with a couple of rental outfits. The city has built a park shelter, outdoor showers, bathrooms and changing area.

In Cedar Rapids, Poe said she has concerns about the low-head roller dam south of downtown. The city had allocated $200,000 in fiscal 2019 for river improvements with the majority for a kayak launch near Czech Village not far from the dam, but safety concerns have slowed the process. Private money also was supposed to help with the kayak launch.

Since 1990, 59 people have died in accidents related to low-head dams in Iowa, according to the Iowa Whitewater Coalition. The dams have a recirculating effect trapping people who get sucked in.

“I think as we look at kayaking, I am really concerned about that safety of that dam,” Poe said. “I shudder to think of people using that section of the river and not having that dam addressed.”


Jackie Thompson-Oster, president of the Cedar Rapids Parks Foundation, said the study is critical to the work of raising money for the kayak launch and that may wait until the study is complete before moving forward in earnest.

“In the process of talking to donors, the biggest question is Alliant’s roller dam,” Thompson-Oster said. “And, if want to portage, who owns property? Do we want to build a portage? Who has liability? The study should answer those questions.”

The 5-in-1 Dam, which was installed in 1978 to replace a municipal dam completed in 1918, includes a no-longer active hydroelectric function, bridges for I-380, E Avenue and F Avenue, and the dam itself. The dam, which has multiple gates, controls upstream water levels for recreation around Ellis Harbor. The study would contemplate the impact if the dam were removed.

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