Whitewater Kayaking Parks Replace Old Dams in Iowa

Photo courtesy of City of Manchester

By Nikoel Hytrek

September 7, 2021

Whitewater kayaking is growing increasingly popular in Iowa as parks dedicated to the recreational activity have started to sprout up.

Chuck Ungs, a Linn County conservation education specialist, said the whitewater park in Manchester has been helpful for him during the pandemic.

“We were all nervous about getting far from home,” he said. “And so having this whitewater park nearby the house was a huge benefit for us.”

Ungs started learning to whitewater kayak in 2015 after the city announced it would build the park. Kayaking became another way for him to enjoy being outdoors and learn new skills. He also met his girlfriend via his new hobby.

“It’s gotten me out to be physically active in a way I hadn’t been before,” Ungs said.

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In addition to the one in Manchester, Iowa has whitewater parks in Charles City and Elkader. Two were made by first removing dangerous low-head dams, which pose higher drowning risks, and were funded partly by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Parks like these can make the river healthier, too, by encouraging water to flow freely. That helps plants, animals, and the water itself.

“You’ve got this water getting aerated over all those rocks every moment of every day,” said Doug Hawker, a former DNR employee who works at a business near the Manchester park. “It helps strip out the nasty chemicals, [and] it oxygenates the water.”

He said the city and the state will see benefits from the park for years to come.

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Another incentive for more whitewater parks to be built is money—particularly for the cities that own them.

Hawker has seen an uptick in people visiting the area, especially during the summer, which leads to more money being spent at nearby businesses

“There always seems to be somebody coming through Manchester,” he said. “The amount of people that routinely come here on the weekends that would never otherwise have any reason to come here is definitely increasing.”

At all three Iowa parks, the space around the rivers are also developed with amenities such as play areas, picnic areas, and disc golf.

“When we come to visit, we usually will have lunch or grab supper and maybe a beer and, you know, leave some money behind in that community,” Ungs said.

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In Central Iowa, the Iowa Confluence Water Trails (ICON) project aims to connect 150 miles of waterways with 86 separate projects that provide recreational opportunities. ICON will have a hub in Des Moines that will feature whitewater rapids and four other recreation projects.

The whitewater course is part of the Des Moines project approved in December last year. That includes adapting three low-head dams.

The ICON project is expected to cost $125 million for everything. It will be financed by donations and federal grants and maintained by the jurisdiction. MidAmerican Energy, Hubbell Realty Co., Principal Financial Group, and Athene have all donated.

“Reconnecting life on the rivers is huge for the ecology, but it’s also important to people and we may not realize how important that is,” Ungs said. “But getting these rivers back into their natural condition benefits everybody.”

Hawker, the former DNR employee, said developments on the rivers make them more accessible, both for hard-core enthusiasts and for amateurs.

“I’ve seen families from all over the United States and all over the state of Iowa come here and they’ll have three or four kids. They might even have their grandparents who aren’t going to go on the river, but they’re going to hang out and watch the world go by and watch the action,” Hawker said.

“Some of the original statistics that was thrown out when we were developing this is that for every person on the river, you tend to have four more on the bank. And those people are all coming and spending time downtown.”


by Nikoel Hytrek

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  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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