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

Skip to content