Editor's Note: The Benton County Conservation is promoting river recreation and conservation in the cedar river watershed, with a series of articles written by Larry Stone focused on the Cedar River Watershed Coalition’s efforts.

Larry's first article focuses on the economic impact of Iowa's waterways.

Hikers. Paddlers. Tubers. Anglers. Sight-seers. Loungers. Bikers. Birders. Photographers. Hunters. Waders.

Iowa’s 18,000 miles of navigable rivers and streams are veritable magnets for a host of recreationists, according to a 2009 study by Iowa State University researchers. And the fun people have along our rivers generates an estimated $824 million for the Iowa economy.

The Cedar River and its major tributaries produce a healthy share of that total. The ISU study calculated that nearly 2.6 million people annually enjoyed the water, woods, trails, and wildlife of Cedar, West Fork, Shell Rock, and Winnebago Rivers.

Those river-lovers spent an estimated $71 million on their recreation. Based on standard multipliers used by economists, that boosted the economy by approximately $119 million. Additional estimates projected that the spending helped create 868 jobs and resulted in $17.7 million in wages and salaries to people who – directly or indirectly – serviced the river-users.

Impressive as they were, the figures weren’t necessarily a surprise to Nate Hoogeveen, director of river programs for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. With the boom in trails, fitness, biking, paddling, and other river-centered activities, the typical river corridor in Iowa “feels like a very active, vibrant place,” Hoogeveen declared. Those river activities should only increase with a statewide push to designate more water trails, with access signs, maps, and promotion of river segments. Iowa already has more than 1,500 miles of water trails completed or under development.

Trails in the Cedar watershed include the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail, which is a 10-mile loop with 1.6 miles of portages, said Vern Fish, director of the Black Hawk County Conservation Board. The route connects George Wyth State Park to Hartman Reserve Nature Trail by using the Cedar River and the lakes within the two parks.

The Black Hawk Creek Water Trail begins in Grundy County, stretching 43 miles to the creek’s confluence with the Cedar in Waterloo. County and DNR officials also are developing a trail along the length of the Cedar through Black Hawk County. That will require three portages around dams in Cedar Falls and Waterloo.

In Charles City, a $1.75-million redevelopment of Riverfront Park along the Cedar River has been a real boon not only to tourists but also to local residents, said city administrator Tom Brownlow. “We took a part of the riverfront that was seldom visited and made it the meeting point of the city.”

The focus of the park is an in-river whitewater course, which has become immensly popular with kayakers and tubers. Contractors placed boulders to create three rapids that became challenging “drop and wave” features for river recreationists. The structures also replaced a dangerous low-head dam and improved fish habitat.

Ginger Williams, tourism coordinator for the Charles City Chamber of Commerce, said the park project made the river “more approachable.” The park includes riverside boulders to sit on or fish around, trails, a handicapped-accessible walkway, a play ravine, a 150-seat stone amphitheater, a nine-hole disk golf course, a relaxing labyrinth, and stormwater fountains.

“There’s a lot more activity for locals and visitors alike,” she said. “There’s a natural draw for people to go down and enjoy the river . . . something for everyone and all ages.”

Although the economic benefits are hard to calculate, some businesses – tube and kayak rentals, gas stations, restaurants – have reported a jump in sales, Brownlow said. And the city’s hotel-motel tax collections have increased significantly.

He’s fielded inquires from several other cities considering building their own whitewater courses, Brownlow added. “And we’ve had visitors from coast to coast. It’s interesting that people that far away are thinking about us.”

The city gets hundreds of requests for information specifically about the whitewater course, Williams said, but the number of people seeking more general information about Charles City also has mushroomed. “People are hearing a lot more about the community,” she said.

Paying for the project also helped build state and local partnerships, Brownlow, said. Funding included a $571,000 Iowa Great Places grant, $468,000 from the Department of Natural Resources for dam safety and a boat ramp,

about $250,000 from city’s hotel-motel tax, and $425,000 in local donations. No property tax money was used.

Despite the obvious appeal of the whitewater course and other river projects, however, Hoogeveen noted that many Iowans still may opt for a more solitary river experience. “We need at least a few segments that are still fairly quiet.”

That’s where people still can go down to the river to fish, sit by a campfire, listen to the birds, or just watch the water flow by.



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