Since the flood of 2008, there are a number of areas along the Iowa River that are in various stages of rebuilding. The Iowa River is ideally located to benefit from initiatives to repair and enhance the riverfront. These efforts will include flood mitigation, habitat restoration and new recreation opportunities in this under-utilized area in close proximity to Iowa City's downtown core.
EPA has worked closely with Iowa City and University of Iowa officials to initiate numerous environmental partnerships. One of the goals is related to increasing awareness about the shared value of Iowa's water resources and the impact of land use in rivers. From 2009 to 2011, EPA provided technical assitance to Iowa City in the form of market analysis and a transit development study in the Riverfront Crossings District.
Public safety is a chief concern as the Iowa River connects the east and west side of the University of Iowa campus and its 31,000 students and more than 20,000 employees. Thousands walk and bike daily just above or adjacent to the dam.
Funding from the EPA Urban Waters Grant, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Low-Head Dam Safety Program, Iowa Great Places and the City of Iowa City will allow for the planning and design necessary to modify the area around Iowa City's Burlington Street Dam.
This river restoration project, combined with the effort to transform the City's decommissioned North Wastewater Treatment Plant into a new flood-resilient riverfront park are intended to:
- Promote better environmental stewardship of our urban waters, in this case the Iowa River and Ralston Creek;
- Improve fish habitat and water quality;
- Increase public safety by mitigating the drowning hazard created by the Burlington Street dam;
- Improve public access to the Iowa River and Ralston Creek through enhanced trail connections, boardwalks, creek crossings, river overlooks and by providing new opportunities to get down to the water for fishing, boating and other activities;
- Provide a variety of active and passive recreational opportunities for all seasons;
- Transform the land from impervious industrial hardscape into a regenerative and flood-resilient riverfront greenspace with a focus on native trees and landscapes, improved riparian corridors, wetlands, natural river and stream bank restoration, open greens, gardens and plazas that will invite quiet contemplation, nature play, eudcation, community gathering, festivals and events;
- Include features, elements and programming in the park that celebrate Iowa City as "river town" and as a center for literature, art and culture; and
- Consider the park a "changeable canvas" for environmental education, recreation and community events, celebrations and programs that respond to current and future needs and desires of the community as the new Riverfront Crossings neighborhood grows around it.
On Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, a crowd of about 150 people attended a community planning event to review and discuss concepts for improvements to the Iowa River and plans for the new riverfront park that will take shape over the next several years in the Riverfront Crossings District now that the City’s North Wastewater Treatment Plan is demolished and cleared from the site. Based on public input and research, McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group and RDG Planning and Design drafted the Iowa River and Riverfront Crossings Park Improvements – Concept Design Report, which includes concepts for the area near the Burlington Street Dam and design plans for the new riverfront park.
The City is proceeding with the final design and construction of the first phase of the development of Riverfront Crossings Park, which is likely to be completed by the end of 2017. The City is continuing to work with McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the University of Iowa, and the U.S. EPA to develop two feasible options for making improvements at or near the Burlington Street Dam to improve public safety, fish habitat, water quality and enhance recreational opportunities along the Iowa River. The Concept Design Report includes schematic design of an option that would not require direct modifications to the structure of the dam, but would eliminate the dangerous conditions at the dam and allow fish to swim upstream. The second option would involve lowering the crest of the dam, which would provide additional benefits, including whitewater recreation, improvements to water quality, and enhanced upstream pool conditions for flat water recreation, such as rowing.
Due to the complex nature of the river hydraulics and existing urban development and infrastructure in the vicinity of the Burlington Street Dam, either option would be costly to implement. However, the result of the extensive study accomplished with this project will provide two viable options for policy-makers to consider in the future when making budgeting and funding decisions.