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Rock the Rapids: turning dangerous dams into places for family fun draws crowds to communities

From the May/June 2017 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
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The mist burns off of a cozy Sunday morning as I sit, watching a flock of geese trade honks with a train. They’re preening in the calm water above the first drop of the Manchester Whitewater Park, and occasionally a brave one floats down the chute before flapping back up to its friends. Tucked between industrial buildings and Main Street, the park is already humming with cyclists, dog walkers and photographers doing portrait shoots. The structured banks of ochre boulders look amazingly inviting, and upstream, a toddler scampers over the rocks under her grandfather’s watchful eye.

Rock the Rapids: turning dangerous dams into places for family fun draws crowds to communities | Iowa Outdoors magazineFirefighter, paddler and whitewater designer Ty Graham sits with me and explains how he built the park with Recreation Engineering and Planning (REP), a Colorado-based company specializing in dam modification and whitewater creation. 

“I grew up in Cedar Falls, and the day after my high school graduation I moved to Colorado,” says Graham. He’s not a large man, but his piercing blue eyes and tendency to talk with his hands give him a titanic intensity. “Out there, you wake up in the morning and all the nature, all the fun you can imagine is right outside your window saying, ‘what do you want to do today?’” 

Graham’s answer was often kayaking. He started off in a long boat so he could pack camping gear, but eventually moved toward smaller, more nimble vessels capable of doing tricks as whitewater playboating gained popularity in the 90s. He made friends with other whitewater enthusiasts, including Gary Lacy, founder and lead engineer at REP.

A few years later, he moved back to Iowa to be closer to family and found local options for whitewater devastatingly slim. 

“My buddies and I were driving for hours and hours to get anywhere you could spend a day on, and we all started thinking this is ridiculous. Iowa has plenty of rivers and outdated dams that could be great for this,” he says. “All you need is good flow, some drop in elevation and gravity.”

Why Dams, and When?

Iowa’s first documented dam was built in 1829 to power a mill, and by 1870 the state had more than 1,000 mills with dams. However, these dams were relatively fragile, and many were damaged by flooding. In the early 1900s, dam construction boomed again for hydroelectric power, and the first lowhead dams were created by slathering older, more fragile dams with concrete. Another lowhead building boom popped up in the 1930s, as post-depression labor set about constructing dams for aesthetic and conservation purposes. Unfortunately, many of these lowhead “beauty dams” have since outlived their intended lifespan and harmed river ecosystems by preventing fish and other wildlife from accessing the whole waterway. Dam construction continued for recreational and reservoir-creating purposes through the 1990s, including large impoundments at Saylorville, Red Rock, Coralville and Rathbun.

Turning the Tide

In the 2000s, public attitudes towards lowhead dams were heading south. Dangerously strong hydraulics, or circular currents, can trap people, boats and debris just below a lowhead. The dams continued to earn their sickening accurate nickname “drowning machines”—claiming an average of two lives a year between 1990 and 2010.

Lowheads also contribute to upstream flooding after heavy rains, as they block a substantial amount of flow across the entire river. Many dam owners were similarly unhappy, torn between preserving the historical significance of older dams and the cost of liability and maintaining such outdated structures. Conservationists and anglers worried as fish and other aquatic wildlife across the state continued to be cut off from the full range of their original habitats. And on top of it all, a slew of expensive structural failures showed the age and danger of undermined dams across the state. 

In 2008, the DNR was instructed to develop extensive plans for recreational water trails, public safety campaigns and dam mitigation templates to address these concerns. Working with engineers, volunteers, communities and developers, the census of current dams and modification plans were nearly finished when disaster struck. In July of 2010, the Lake Delhi dam in eastern Iowa failed, draining a 9-mile reservoir in minutes. The failure released 200,000 cubic yards of sediment into the Maquoketa River, requiring dam repairs estimated at $16 million.

While this failure was certainly costly, damaging and jarring, no one was killed and the experience was incorporated into Iowa’s official 2010 Plan for Dam Mitigation for handling such disasters in the future. It also spurred immediate work on modifications to dams on the Maquoketa River, including the removal of the Quaker Mill Dam, modification of the Manchester Dam into the Manchester Whitewater Park and two more modification projects currently underway.

The 2010 dam inventory counted 177 lowheads in 57 counties. By spring 2016, approximately 20 percent of those dams were modified, with 14 projects on 11 rivers completed, and another 18 underway. Another 20 sites have been identified as having high potential for future projects.

Flush Out the Fun

Since the 2010 plan, all dam modification projects are designed to accomplish four goals—improve wildlife habitat by minimizing sediment accumulation behind dams, reconnect rivers to reduce flooding and increase fish passage, increase recreational opportunities and safety, and spark economic development in the surrounding communities. However, as each river, dam and surrounding community are unique, modifications vary widely. In some cases the dam is removed, in others it’s reduced or augmented with rock arch rapids or ramps, and in a select few it becomes a whitewater park. Iowa currently has whitewater attractions in three towns—Manchester, Elkader and Charles City, all in the river-rich northeast part of the state. 

The first Iowa whitewater park was built in Charles City, and its three drops are favorite spots for lots of local paddlers including Graham, Hannah Childs and husband Marty Colbert. 

“Even as the weather gets colder, it’s hard to find a day when there isn’t at least a handful of people on the water. Last year we kept paddling every weekend into mid-January, and about six weeks later we were up and running again in March,” says Childs.

The whitewater features and surrounding park received a National Smart Growth Award from the EPA in 2013.

In Elkader, a single wave called “The Gobbler” is the main attraction. Graham says it’s a fun but technically-tricky wave to master, again surrounded by an EPA-awarded park.

“I love the feature, but the best part is for every one person on the river, there’s four on the shore,” says paddler Tom Gifford. “This used to be a steel retaining wall and the town had its back to the river. The park totally changed that.”

“It’s a really unique thing for a smaller town to have,” agrees City Administrator Jennifer Cowsert. “It’s much more attractive than the lowhead was, and if we can do it here anybody can do it.”

The Manchester Whitewater Park has six drops that attract everyone from first-time tubers to world-class whitewater buffs.

“In my opinion, all of these parks are spectacular—but Manchester is the best for getting started on,” says Graham. “It’s really friendly. I’ve never seen a community wrap its arms around a project like in Manchester.”

More projects are tentatively planned in Cedar Falls, Waterloo and potentially even Des Moines in coming years. 

“It’s certainly a huge undertaking, but there’s a lot of talk about the dams in downtown Des Moines—the Center and Scott Street dams in particular,” says Graham. “Those dams alone have already killed 15 people. Imagine if that damage had been caused by an alligator in the river instead of a dam—do you think we’d still let it be there?”

In Waterloo, plans for a whitewater park are already underway. Mayor Quentin Hart says the change will beautify the river and contribute to a renaissance of the entire downtown area.

“It’s something both my predecessor and I have been really excited about, and it’s an investment in not only the city but the enjoyment of people who see that river every day,” Hart says.

Seeing the Difference

Back in Manchester, Graham scrambles over the limestone gracefully, pointing out cool crystal formations, fossils and colors as a family skips rocks nearby.

“These sorts of opportunities draw the community together because it’s the spot to be,” says Graham. “Families of all generations can be here together, kids can play in the little pools and on the rocks, and this past summer I noticed high school girls like sitting here to tan. Then you get more people, because what likes high school girls better than high school boys? And they bring all their friends and suddenly you’ve got droves of people, all with access to a river that used to be pooled up and stagnant.”

Standing at the lowest drop, Graham points across the river at a cut silhouette of concrete sticking out from under the bridge. 

“That’s the end of the dam we removed, and it’s so much higher than the gradual drops we have now,” Graham says. The drop from the top of the silhouette to the water below is easily six feet. 

“We wanted to leave that visible, as a little reminder of how this used to be and the difference these projects can make.”

Learn more about whitewater parks in Iowa - yes, Iowa! | Iowa Outdoors magazine

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