A call to Iowa to revive our rivers

They can become a popular economic draw.

Iowa is the land between America’s two greatest rivers. We are blessed with waterways flowing within a short drive or walk of virtually everyone. These rivers and streams hold untapped value. Unfortunately, though, we have neglected and degraded most of them until they are shadows of what they once were or could be.

Iowa Rivers Revival is working with Iowa’s towns, cities and river lovers to restore our waterways as beautiful, safe places to enjoy, work and recreate. On behalf of this vision, Iowa Rivers Revival is asking the governor and Iowa lawmakers to invest $2 million next year. It’s a small drop in the state’s spending bucket, but it’s one that can pay huge dividends by making Iowa more livable and economically vital.

Read more about A River Restoration Program for Iowa.

Central City shows what we can achieve. This small town on the Wapsipinicon River embarked on its reinterpretation after major flooding in 1999. The community worked with FEMA to buy out flood plain properties to mitigate future flood damage. It dedicated the land primarily to riverfront parks, which have steadily added attractions and become a popular draw for residents and visitors.

Thanks to the redevelopment, Central City earned a “Main Street Iowa” community designation in 2000. The city decided that the river — the town’s original reason for being — was still its biggest asset. A renewed emphasis on the Wapsi has led to new trails, the new Mary Lundby Trail Bridge, a farmers market and concerts along the river. The town credits river revitalization with drawing new residents and tourists, significantly boosting the local economy.

Central City, selected as Iowa Rivers Revival’s 2012 River Town of the Year, reflects stories from past river town winners and river restoration successes in other states. Their experiences are supported by a 2012 Iowa State University economic study that shows outdoor recreation is becoming a huge contributor to Iowa’s economy, with over $500 million in spending and 5,000 jobs in the state directly related to recreation on Iowa’s waterways. The ISU study emphasized that outdoor recreation investments also help make Iowans healthier by encouraging them to get outside and get moving.

River restoration efforts also address problems that have big price tags, like flooding, bridge destabilization and water impairments. Eroding stream banks are often a major contributor of sedimentation. Standard engineering solutions usually call for armored riprap revetments or other expensive “hardscape” approaches with questionable long-term results. “Softscape” restoration approaches can enhance stream bank stability at a fraction of the cost, while enhancing fish and wildlife habitat and increasing a stream’s ability to filter nutrients and other pollutants. The results will also look more natural.

Dubuque, Iowa River Rivival’s 2012 River City of the Year, has adopted a number of innovative, softscape approaches in its Bee Branch Creek restoration project. At Bee Branch Creek, the city is “daylighting,” or opening up a stream long buried in a storm sewer. The changes will greatly increase storm water capacity and decrease flood risks for more than 1,000 properties in three historic neighborhoods. Other benefits include improved water quality and a new, mile-long linear park from north Dubuque to the Mississippi River.

Bee Branch Creek is just a small part of Dubuque’s river renaissance, which focuses on the city’s connection to the Mississippi. Highlights include downtown riverfront development around the Port of Dubuque and its stunning National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Here, the city has transformed 90 acres of industrial brownfield into a bustling center of history, tourism, recreation, commerce — and civic pride.

Such results don’t come easily or overnight. River restoration is complex and starts with asking what a river would do naturally. The most successful projects involve ecology, engineering, art and political diplomacy. They also usually require public funding, often used to leverage significant private support.

With a little investment, we can multiply the potential for communities across Iowa to compete for future bragging rights about their own river transformations.


A call to revive our rivers, March 1, 2013


ROSALYN LEHMAN is executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival.
Contact: rlehman@iowarivers.org or www.iowarivers.org

Dubuque Named “River City of the Year”

Iowa Rivers Revival says the historic city is in the midst of a renaissance in revitalizing its relationship to the Mississippi River – improving recreation, protecting the environment and bolstering its economy.

Dubuque, Iowa.   “Iowa Rivers Revival,” a group that advocates for rivers, has named Dubuque “River City of the Year” in recognition of the city’s visionary efforts to revitalize its connections to the Mississippi River.

“Dubuque has accomplished a remarkable turnaround over the last couple decades,” said Roz Lehman, executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival, “and the river is right at the heart of it all.”

“Dubuque has reconnected people to the river that inspired the town’s settlement so long ago,” Lehman said.  “Once again, the river is making Dubuque a very special place to visit and live.”

Iowa Rivers Revival pointed to several key river-related projects. including:

•  The Port of Dubuque.  Starting with a new museum – now the superb National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium – the America’s River project has steadily and stunningly redeveloped the downtown riverfront, transforming 90 acres of industrial, underused brownfield property into a bustling center of history, tourism, recreation, commerce and civic pride.   The Port of Dubuque continues to add or restore other features in recent years, including the Mississippi Riverwalk, the historic Shot Tower, a hotel and indoor water park, a conference      center, a casino, the Star Brewery Building, and other businesses.  Dubuque has additional plans to transform more of the Port area.

•  The Bee Branch Creek Restoration and Gateway Project is “daylighting” or opening up the historic creek that was buried in a storm sewer more than a century ago.  The Bee Branch project, under way after years of planning, will greatly increase stormwater capacity, improve water quality, and decrease the risk of flooding damage to 1,150 properties in three of Dubuque’s oldest neighborhoods.  It will make a mile-long linear park stretching from the Mississippi to the heart of Dubuque’s historic North End.  And it will be a community attraction for residents and visitors, with hike/bike trails, bridges, overlooks, gazebos, an amphitheater, benches, gardens, lights and 1,000 new trees.

“There are several common threads that run through the strong projects Dubuque has accomplished,” Lehman said.  “The projects honor the river.  They are environmentally sustainable for generations to come.  They result from careful, focused planning processes involving the citizens of Dubuque.  They were done by a rich mix of public and private collaborators and financial supporters.  They involve many jurisdictions and levels of government, with Dubuque at the hub,” Lehman said.

Iowa Rivers Revival cited some of the other projects earning “River City of the Year” recognition for Dubuque:

•  The Dubuque Water Trail runs 11 miles along the Mississippi River and Catfish Creek.   Iowa has a rapidly-growing system of water trails, but this is the first on the Mississippi.  It offers great sightseeing with five access points, and runs from near Lock and Dam #11 downstream past the City and on to Massey Marina.  Staff of the Iowa DNR, which collaborates on water trails, applauded Dubuque planners of the water trail, which was dedicated June  23, 2012.

•  Catfish Creek Watershed Management Authority (CCWMA) is a multi-jurisdictional organization working on water quality, flooding and other issues in the 57-square-mile watershed.  About half of the City of Dubuque is in the watershed, which includes residential neighborhoods, industries, rolling cropland, dense forest, steep bluffs and rock outcrops.  The watershed is threatened by large amounts of soil and nutrients from both urban and agricultural runoff.  The CCWMA is undertaking a Watershed Management Plan in 2013 and  other initiatives.

•  Bike and Hiking Trails.  Dubuque has 45 miles of trails, much of it on the riverfront system that connects the Mississippi to community parks, the downtown, some of Dubuque’s oldest neighborhoods, and the America’s River project at the Port of Dubuque.  Portions are designated as the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) through Iowa.  The system is slated to keep growing, including the new Bee Branch MRT section.

Lehman said:  “Dubuque is in the midst of a renaissance in revitalizing its relationship to the Mississippi River – improving recreation, protecting the environment and bolstering its economy.”

“Dubuque is a great example of public officials, community leaders, civic organizations, businesses and citizens who refocused on their river to improve quality of life,” she said.  “Dubuque is thriving on teamwork and partnerships, collaboration and community involvement.”

“Dubuque is living up to its motto, ‘Masterpiece on the Mississippi,’” Lehman said.

More background and information:

Iowa Rivers Revival (IRR) is presenting the “River City of the Year” award to Dubuque, population 58,000, at a reception at 10:00 AM on Wednesday morning, January 30 at the Grand River Center on the Mississippi River in Dubuque.  Mayor Roy Buol is accepting the award on behalf of the City of Dubuque.  After the award presentation, Mayor Buol and other City leaders and staff will present a virtual tour on “Sharing Dubuque’s Story” about key river-related projects.

IRR presented a “River Town of the Year” award to Central City, population 1,250, on Jan. 21.  Previous “River Towns of the Year” recognized by Iowa Rivers Revival are Webster City, Elkader, Coon Rapids, Cedar Falls, and Charles City.   (For details, go to www.iowarivers.org.)

Iowa Rivers Revival was founded six years ago to be a voice for rivers.  IRR is committed to helping Iowans work on public policy to restore and protect Iowa’s rivers and streams.

Central City named “River Town of the Year”

Central City, Iowa.   “Iowa Rivers Revival,” a group that advocates for rivers, has named Central City as “River Town of the Year” in recognition of the community’s outstanding work to revitalize its connections to the Wapsipinicon River.

“Central City has been a river town since it was founded in 1839, of course, but the last dozen years have seen a remarkable renaissance and focus on the Wapsi,” said Roz Lehman, executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival (IRR).

“Central City has made enormous efforts to foster river-related recreation, tourism, and economic development,” Lehman said.  “It’s a model for what a small town can do to strengthen its quality of life by embracing its river.”

Iowa Rivers Revival is presenting the award at a reception Monday morning at the Falcon Civic Center in Central City.  Mayor Don Gray and other leaders are accepting the award for the community.

The Flood of 1999 was one turning point.  Central City responded by working with FEMA to buy out flood-plain properties along the Wapsi to mitigate future flood damage — and then dedicated the land primarily to be riverfront parks.  The parks have steadily added attractions and drawn more visitors.

In 2000, Central City became a “Main Street Iowa” community, which involved a process of focusing on the town’s existing assets.  “It was obvious to everyone that we were a river town and the river was our biggest asset,” City Administrator LaNeil McFadden recalled recently.

Over the last dozen years, Central City built on the recreational, tourism and civic opportunities provided by the river:  Walking and biking trails were built, and recently were connected to Pinicon Ridge County Park and the new Mary Lundby Trail Bridge.  More people are fishing, canoeing, walking, biking, kayaking, paddle-boating, and beautifying the parks with gardens and plantings.

The Farmer’s market has grown steadily.  “Central City Live” community concerts are held every Friday night in August.  Kids enjoy a July 4 fishing derby each year.  The Mainstreet Design Committee organizes a City-Wide Cleanup each year of the river bank, trail, and downtown areas.  More river-related projects are planned, and the Wapsi is a key part of the community’s vision of the future.

“Central City is proving that rivers are good for tourism, good for business, and good for quality of life,” Lehman said.  Central City estimates it draws 400,000 visitors per year, a huge contribution to the local economy.  And Central City’s population (about 1250) is growing.

“We commend the leaders and citizens, and commend Central City as River Town of the Year,” Lehman said.

“You make Central City a great place to visit, and a great place to live.”

 More background and detail:

Previous “River Towns of the Year” recognized by Iowa Rivers Revival are Webster City, Elkader, Coon Rapids, Cedar Falls, and Charles City.   IRR will name a much larger “River City of the Year” at the end of January.

Iowa Rivers Revival was founded six years ago to be a voice for rivers.  IRR is committed to helping Iowans work on public policy to restore and protect Iowa’s rivers and streams.

“Central City is a superb example of public officials, community leaders, civic organizations and citizens who have refocused on their river to improve quality of life,”  Lehman said.

“Central City has a remarkable collaboration of the Mayor and City Council, City Park & Recreation Board, City staff, Central City Main Street and the Mainstreet Design Committee, the Linn County Conservation Board and staff, civic organizations, and many other volunteers and citizens,” Lehman said.  “It is truly a ‘Get-it-done and work together community.’”

More projects are coming soon in Central City:  Trees and shrubs and native prairie-grass will be planted this spring.  Linn County is looking at creating an “Iowa Water Trail” on the Wapsi.   There are plans for a new gazebo near the Main St. Bridge, a new band shell for “Central City Live” and other community events, a fish cleaning station at the south end of the trail, a handicap-accessible fishing dock, and new safety and interpretive signage along the trail.

“Central City is a small town, but its people and leaders are creating a big and promising future, with the river right in the middle of the picture,” Lehman said.