Interest grows in improving rivers statewide

'Each completed project creates more demand for similar projects'

A crew work on construction of one of the six drops in the Manchester Whitewater Park on the Maquoketa River, in Manches
A crew work on construction of one of the six drops in the Manchester Whitewater Park on the Maquoketa River, in Manchester on Dec. 3.

Re-engineering rivers to make them safer and friendlier for recreationists and the environment is catching on in Eastern Iowa.

“Each completed project creates more demand for similar projects,” said Nate Hoogeveen, director of river programs for the Department of Natural Resources.

Projects have been undertaken on four of Eastern Iowa’s premier rivers — the Cedar, the Wapsipinicon, the Maquoketa, and the Turkey — and several more are on the drawing boards, he said.

Hoogeveen said the increasing popularity of river improvements is evident in a recent announcement of the availability of $500,000 in cost-share grants for river restoration projects.

The announcement almost immediately elicited applications seeking $1.2 million for projects with a total cost of $3.2 million, he said.

“Interest is definitely growing in making our rivers better,” said Rosalyn Lehman, executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival, which works to further that cause.

Lehman praised the Legislature for increasing its annual appropriation for low-head dam removal and water trails to $2 million.


“Charles City has opened people’s eyes to opportunities to improve and reconnect with our rivers,” Lehman said.

The Gobbler

The state’s first white-water course opened on the Cedar River at Charles City in 2011. Its success has paved the way for the Gobbler, a white-water feature completed a year ago on the Turkey River at Elkader, and for an elaborate 900-foot-long, six-feature course under construction this winter on the Maquoketa River at Manchester.

Following Iowa’s first rock arch rapids project, completed in 2010 on the Turkey River at Vernon Springs south of Cresco, another was completed last winter on the Wapsipinicon River at Quasqueton. Additional rock arch rapids, which simulate natural rapids with a cascading succession of curved stone weirs, are in the planning stages at several other locations.

The projects typically involve the removal or modification of an obsolete and often deteriorating low-head dam, whose recirculating currents have claimed scores of drowning victims. In most cases, the re-engineering projects, financed at least in part with government grants, also relieve the owners — usually a government entity — of long-term maintenance expenses.

The projects also enhance the beauty of the dam site while eliminating obstacles to the migration of fish and other aquatic animals and improving recreational prospects for paddle sport enthusiasts, anglers, and sightseers.

At least three projects are under consideration in Linn County:

l Partial removal of the Buffalo Creek dam near Coggon

l Modification of the Wapsipinicon dam at Central City to create a kayak venue

l Creation of a rock arch rapids on the Wapsipinicon at Troy Mills.

Gary Peiffer, a leader of the not-for-profit Troy Mills Dam Association, which owns the dam, said efforts are underway to improve the safety of the dam where Andrea Zimmerman, 29, of Cedar Rapids, died July 19 in a tubing accident.

Zimmerman and three companions were floating on tubes above the dam when swift currents swept them into a 30-foot-long broken dam section, through which the river rushes with magnified force.

Peiffer said the association has applied for a grant that would fund an engineering study to recommend a solution, which likely would be a rock arch rapids.


Dennis Goemaat, deputy director of the Linn County Conservation Department, said the plan to mitigate the Buffalo Creek dam near Coggon is referred to as a partial dam removal with rock arch rapids.

About two-thirds of the 10-foot-tall dam will be removed in three or four phases, with time between each to allow the stabilization of silt as the upstream impoundment gradually is dewatered.

“It won’t be a white-water course, but we will have fish passage and canoe passage during higher flows,” he said.

At the earliest, he said, work will start late in 2015.

Goemaat said officials are in the “talking stages” of developing a plan to modify the Wapsipinicon dam at Central City. Public meetings will be held, he said.

‘Good fishing’

Whatever the eventual plan entails, Goemaat said, “We have good fishing below the dam, and we want to keep that.”

Good fishing may have been compromised with the construction of the rock arch rapids upstream in Quasqueton, according to several local anglers, who say the volume of rock required to build it displaced much of the water that fish formerly found attractive.

“There is enough water during higher flows in the spring, but you can see the bottom almost everywhere during the normal flows of summer and fall,” veteran Quasqueton angler Harvey Chesmore said.

Quasqueton Mayor Chad Staton said he has not received any negative feedback.

“It’s less than a year old, and some people, I would say, are waiting to see how it weathers major floods and ice outs,” Staton said.


The DNR’s Hoogeveen said preserving good fishing also is a top priority farther upstream in Littleton, where the DNR intends to remove a low-head dam that has claimed nine lives since it was built more than 80 years ago.

The dam would be replaced by a rock arch rapids that would start about 300 feet upstream of the existing dam, he said.

The depth of the dam’s impoundment would remain virtually unchanged, and the deep plunge pool below the existing dam — a fish magnet — would not be filled in, he said.

“We’re trying to eliminate the danger while preserving what’s good about it,” Hoogeveen said.

Two other dam removal or modification projects are in the works on the Maquoketa River — one at the Quaker Mill dam about two miles upstream of Manchester, the other at the Mon-Maq dam just below Monticello.

Jones County Conservation Director Brad Moorman said the Mon-Maq project, which will emphasize reducing the danger of the dam’s recirculating currents while increasing fish passage, “is moving forward, though likely several years away from completion.”

Hoogeveen said the proposed removal of the Quaker Mill dam would return a degraded section of the Maquoketa River into a healthy, free-flowing stretch that would enhance the attraction of the “flagship” white-water course under construction in Manchester.

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