2. Existing Conditions

Introduction to State-Designated Water Trails

Analysis of existing conditions on the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek included all of the most recent research related to recreation on Iowa rivers, current access and launch inventory protocols, and established cultural and historic resource data sets.  Much of the information presented is derived from a study of potential water trails by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) from 2012 to 2014.  This study included Black Hawk County as well as Bremer County to the north.  However, for the purposes of this document, only information relating to Black Hawk County is included in this chapter.  Anecdotal information on river use and conditions were provided by county and city staff, paddlers, landowners, and Iowa Northland Regional Council of Governments (INRCOG) staff.

Rivers become known as water trails when people paddle on them and begin to organize amenities to support paddling such as parking areas and launches.  Water trails, in turn, also support uses beyond paddling.  River edge amenities also engage anglers, those relaxing near the river, and students studying the ecosystem.  We know that river recreation also has a substantial impact on the Iowa economy.  A 2009 study by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) at Iowa State University estimated overall economic impact from recreation on the fifty largest rivers in the state for the year.  Results concluded that recreational river use by Iowans supported over 6,350 jobs, $824 million in retail sales, and $130 million of personal income.

State designation is reserved for water trails that represent the best paddling experiences in each region of the state.  Not every county in Iowa will have a State-designated water trail.  A set of criteria established in 2010 is applied to guide classification of State-designated segments in Iowa.  This development classification system allows paddlers to match water trail routes with their ability level.  These criteria also help water trail managers, sponsors, and trail volunteers select a classification assignment for each segment based on their management resources and abilities.  Information presented in this chapter helped determine the development classification for each river segment, and each segment’s classification is identified in Chapter Four.

The careful assignment of development classification is one of the most important steps in water trail development.  In addition to meeting paddler expectations, a segment’s classification is also a driver for development and infrastructure funding.

Altogether, the Water Trails Master Plan for Black Hawk County covers three distinct water trails: The Cedar River Water Trail, the Black Hawk Creek Water Trail, and the Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail.  All three water trails have undergone some degree of planning for official State Water Trail status in the past.  However, in the early 2010s, the State’s planning process was updated to include considerations for maintenance, private land, and environmental impact.  Accordingly, a new planning process was required to ensure the State’s water trails were developed using a holistic approach.

Overview of the Rivers

The Cedar River runs northwest to southeast through Black Hawk County, bisecting the county almost evenly.  The river runs through the cities of Janesville, Cedar Falls, and Waterloo, and along the city limits of Evansdale and Gilbertville.  The Cedar River is the widest river in the county by far, and offers wide open views of the surrounding wildlife.  There is an abundance of public land surrounding the Cedar River, much of which is in the floodplain.  For this reason, development along the Cedar River is largely restricted to recreational amenities such as trails, parks, campgrounds, and river accesses.

Black Hawk Creek is a tributary of the Cedar River, and is the largest of its tributaries in the county.  The creek runs southwest to northeast through the cities of Hudson and Waterloo, with a very short segment also cutting through the southeastern corner of Cedar Falls.  Black Hawk Creek provides a unique experience, as nearly all of the land surrounding the creek is publicly owned from Hudson to the confluence with the Cedar River.  The result is an intimate, tree-canopied greenbelt that contrasts greatly with the surrounding agricultural and urban landscapes.  The surroundings change dramatically near the confluence of the Cedar River, where Black Hawk Creek runs through the John Deere Waterloo Works Foundry and Drivetrain Operations site.

There are several additional tributaries to the Cedar River in Black Hawk County, some of which are navigable by kayak, canoe, or small boat.  These include the following, in order from north to south:

  • West Fork Cedar River
  • Shell Rock River (tributary of West Fork Cedar River)
  • Beaver Creek
  • Snag Creek
  • Dry Run Creek (Cedar Falls)
  • Virden Creek (subterranean, built over)
  • Dry Run Creek (Waterloo, subterranean, built over)
  • Elk Run Creek
  • Poyner Creek
  • Indian Creek
  • Miller Creek
  • Wolf Creek
  • Spring Creek

All tributaries of the Cedar River are considered “non-meandered”.  In short, this means that the riverbed can be owned.  Most segments of these tributaries are part of a privately or publicly owned parcel which includes both land and water.  In a few areas where part of a non-meandered stream is not included in any parcel, the riverbed is owned by the adjacent property owners.  While much of these lands are owned by the respective City or County government, the streams themselves are not inalienable public lands and could theoretically be sold to a private entity.

In contrast, several rivers in Iowa are considered “meandered”.  This determination was made over 100 years ago by the original land surveyors in the state.  The process in the 1800s was unsystematic, as some rivers in the state are not meandered – particularly in western Iowa – even though they are wider or longer than other rivers which are meandered.  The main distinction between meandered and non-meandered streams is that meandered streams are unowned and therefore property of the State.  Meandered streams are not part of any parcel, as they were never allowed to be owned.

The Cedar River is the only meandered stream in Black Hawk County.  However, only part of the river is meandered.  The point at which the Cedar River changes from non-meandered to meandered is west line T89N, R13W in Black Hawk County.  This north-south line is just upstream from Washington Park in Cedar Falls.

In other words, the Cedar River is meandered – or State-owned – from Washington Park in Cedar Falls all the way down to the confluence with the Iowa River.  The entire river upstream of Washington Park is non-meandered and there are more restrictions in place for paddlers.  The running water of a non-meandered stream is still considered public, but the riverbed and adjacent lands are owned.  Water trails users should not traverse onto privately owned land on non-meandered streams.  Figure 2-2 shows the entirety of Black Hawk County including the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek as well as select tributaries of the Cedar River.

There are numerous canoe and kayak outfitters in the vicinity of the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek water trails.  Figure 2-3 describes each outfitter within a 20-mile radius of the water trails:

The Black Hawk County Conservation Board is very supportive of State-designation of the water trails and improving conditions on the rivers in general.  A variety of meetings and events were held in 2012 to 2014 concerning the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek study areas at the time.  These included visioning meetings, listening sessions for landowners to provide input, and steering committee meetings.  Issues raised by landowners included concerns about littering, trespassing, and liability.  Much of the land adjacent to the Cedar River in Black Hawk County is publicly owned, whereas the scope of these meetings extended further into Grundy and Bremer Counties where a much larger share of the land is private.  For these reasons, Black Hawk County was chosen as the geography for this plan which is the first water trails plan in the area.

Water Quality

Discussions about water quality nearly always focus on the concentrations of various elements such as dissolved oxygen, nutrients, and pesticides.  In addition to these chemical characteristics, physical and biological characteristics also factor into the quality of streams, rivers, and lakes.  Physical characteristics are the ones we generally can see, smell, or taste such as the temperature or the turbidity (cloudiness) of the water.  Biological characteristics include the presence or absence of bacteria as well as the diversity of aquatic insects and fish species.  It is increasingly recognized that other physical factors such as wide and shallow channels, channel beds dominated by fine sediments, bed and stream bank instability, and fragmentation by culvert crossings or dams can limit biological diversity.

Measuring the level of water quality involves comparing the concentrations of selected chemical, physical, and biological elements with State standards that define water’s suitability for a particular beneficial use such as swimming, aquatic life protection, drinking water source, or fish consumption.  Aquatic life in a stream segment is also assessed using rigorous biological monitoring methods that allow ranking of biological quality.  Water quality standards are important because they help identify many types of water quality problems.  Standards are particularly helpful in assessing and solving water quality problems stemming from point sources of pollution including municipal wastewater discharges, industrial operations, and mining sites.  Standards do not currently exist in Iowa for nonpoint source pollutants such as nutrients and sediment.

According to Section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act, the beneficial use of a water body is considered “impaired” when the water in the river segment or lake is sampled and fails to meet any one of the standards set to protect that beneficial use.  Federal regulations require that all states compile and submit to EPA a list of waters considered “impaired”.  This list is updated with new data every two years.  States must prepare a water quality improvement plan for all Section 303(d)-impaired waters to show how beneficial use can again be fully supported.  Only when additional monitoring shows that all standards are met and the beneficial use is again fully supported can the impairment be removed.  In practice, Iowans are swimming, fishing, and boating in waters whether or not they meet the water quality standards.  Figure 2-16 and Figure 2-38 show impaired waters along the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek respectively as well as their tributaries.

Water Quality Funding

Several types of funding mechanisms exist to direct resources toward initiatives on agricultural land in critical watersheds.  Examples of these include the USDA-NRCS Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), the Iowa Water Quality Initiative (WQI), and the Iowa DNR Lake Restoration Program.  Prioritized Nutrient Management Strategy Watersheds are an example of critical geographic areas identified for water quality enhancement in the state.  Assessments and planning efforts are used to develop strategies for enhancing water quality conditions.  Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDLs) and their linked nine-element watershed management plans are examples of these strategies.  These strategies are then implemented as funding becomes available.  Watershed Management Authorities (WMAs) are a mechanism for cities, counties, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and stakeholders to cooperatively engage in watershed planning and management including water quality improvement.

Funding sources include federal, state, and local entities as well as private sources.  Federal examples include USDA programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and EPA Section 319 administered through Iowa DNR.  At the state level, important sources include Watershed Protection Funds and Watershed Improvement Review Board (WIRB) grants, both administered through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Water Quality Initiatives

Multiple water quality initiatives are underway in the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek watersheds.  Locally, the Cedar River Cleanup and Festival is an annual event held by the Cedar River Festival Group.  In 2017, the group celebrated the 30th anniversary of the cleanup event at Island Park in Cedar Falls.  In 2018, the cleanup event began in Deerwood Park in Evansdale.  The mission of the Cedar River Festival Group is to educate the community about celebrating and preserving the beauty of the Cedar River as a local natural resource.

Another local initiative is the Black Hawk Creek Water and Soil Coalition.  The coalition was formed for the purpose of restoring, improving, preserving, and advocating for water quality, soil health, ecosystems, and recreational opportunities in the Black Hawk Creek Watershed.  As shown in Figure 2-41, the watershed of Black Hawk Creek includes portions of Grundy County and Black Hawk County.  The coalition is particularly focused on working with farmers to improve soil health over the long-term and reduce sediment runoff into the creek.

Two statewide community-based efforts focus on water quality.  Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition) engages volunteers in water quality and aquatic habitat enhancement through an annual seven-day trash removal expedition.  IOWATER is a volunteer water quality monitoring program that collects and publishes preliminary monitoring data.

Funded water quality initiatives in this study area are limited to three sub-basins in or near Black Hawk County.  Efforts in the Dry Run Creek watershed have been awarded $2.3 million between 2006 and 2015, primarily from EPA Section 319 funding.  The confluence of Dry Run Creek and the Cedar River is just downstream of Washington Park in Cedar Falls, and water quality improvements for the watershed focus on extensive retrofits related to both urban and agricultural stormwater runoff as well as streambank stabilization.

The Miller Creek and Casey Lake watersheds were awarded $535,500 between 2005 and 2015.  The majority of this funding was directed at agricultural runoff in the Miller Creek watershed and received by the Water Quality Initiative.  A demonstration watershed with conservation practices is being implemented to aid in the adoption of in-field, edge-of-field, and off-field practices to reduce nutrient loading in Miller Creek.  Casey Lake is located in Hickory Hills Park just south of Black Hawk County.  Efforts to explore and maximize phosphorus and sediment reduction were awarded $36,000 from EPA Section 319 program in 2005.

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