2.1 Cedar River

Cedar River Overview

The Cedar River begins north of Austin, Minnesota and extends to the confluence at the Iowa River near Columbus Junction, Iowa.  This drainage of approximately 7,830 square miles continues to flow into the Mississippi River, as shown in Figure 2-4.  The segment under consideration in this study is primarily limited to Black Hawk County, starting in the City of Janesville and ending at McFarlane Park.  Approximately 40.8 linear miles of the Cedar River comprise the water trail study area, not including portages around dams or alternate routes around islands.

The Cedar River is meandered from a point just north of Washington Park in Cedar Falls all the way to the confluence at the Iowa River.  North of Washington Park, the river is non-meandered.  Rules governing use of the river and private land differ between meandered and non-meandered streams.

According to the 2009 Iowa Rivers and River Corridors Recreation Study, the Cedar River is the most heavily used river in the immediate area.  The Wapsipinicon River is a close second.  Around 40 percent of the trips reported in 2009 include use by a form of boat.  Figure 2-4 shows the usage of the Cedar River by activity, as identified in the 2009 study:

The Cedar River was originally called the Red Cedar River by the Meskwaki, named after the red cedar trees growing in the area.  The river, now simply the Cedar River, is central to the surrounding region known as the Cedar Valley.

There are three major dams located along this segment of the river.  These dams are situated in the downtown areas of Waverly, Cedar Falls, and Waterloo.  There are also two wing dams – which unlike a conventional dam, extend only partway into the river: one immediately downstream of the Waterloo Dam, and one approximately 2.4 miles upstream from the Waterloo Dam near Sans Souci Island.

The wing dam near Sans Souci Island creates narrow rapids which can be traversed by experienced kayakers but is not recommended for most users.  Even experienced kayakers should take note that river recirculation after the rapids can pose a greater safety hazard than the rapids themselves.  All river users can bypass this dam easily by paddling or tubing around the other side of Sans Souci Island.  Traversing the wing dam just downstream of the Waterloo Dam is not recommended for any user.

Aside from the dams, reported hazards along the Cedar River water trail study area are minimal.  Riffles which could impact paddlers at low water levels were noted just downstream of Janesville and just downstream of the Cedar Falls Dam.  The riffles in Cedar Falls are occasionally used for whitewater activities when the river reaches an ideal height.  For most users, however, avoiding this area entirely is recommended.

The Cedar River Water Trail was reviewed in 2013 and divided into six sections in Black Hawk County.  Segments in Bremer County to the north were also reviewed and generally had lower stream speeds and paddling use volumes than the segments in Black Hawk County.  Figure 2-6 shows the river conditions for each segment in Black Hawk County:

A variety of meetings and events were held from 2012 to 2014 concerning the Cedar River water trail study area.  Public outreach programs and efforts include the 25th Annual Cedar River Cleanup and Canoe/Kayak Float which was held on July 28, 2012 with a festival on July 29.  Another cleanup event took place the following August in Bremer County.  Also in August, the River Watershed Coalition met and discussed the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act.  In 2013 and 2014, Field of Dreams Poker Run fundraising events were held involving a kayak ride from Washington Park in Cedar Falls to Exchange Park in Waterloo.  On March 22, 2014, the Northeast Iowa Paddle Fest took place among local stakeholders to develop a water trail plan for the Cedar River in Bremer and Black Hawk Counties.

Water Trails Access Points

There are 20 existing river accesses along the Cedar River in Black Hawk County.  Some accesses are appropriate for motorized boats and others suitable only for canoes, kayaks, and other non-motorized devices.  Of these 20 accesses, two are unofficial accesses for portaging around the dams in downtown Waterloo, and one access in Hartman Reserve has been closed to the public but can still be used as part of the Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail.  Figure 2-7 provides details about each river access:

A range of public facilities are available at water trail access points including public restrooms, drinking water, and other park amenities.  Figure 2-8 lists the existing facilities near each river access:

The Cedar River runs through numerous parks, recreational areas, and business districts.  Much of the river is surrounded by wetlands situated within the floodplain, creating a unique wilderness experience.  The bottomland forests around the Cedar River present abundant opportunities for seeing wildlife including a wide variety of birds as well as deer, turtles, and mussels.

There are several variables to consider when reviewing each river access along the Cedar River:

  • Number of parking spaces
  • Distance between parking and the river
  • Slope of the path to the river
  • Slope of the launch/ramp into the river
  • Angle of the launch/ramp relative to the river

These variables were reviewed on a site-by-site basis by the landscape architect and water trails coordinator, and information about how these variables were considered in planned improvements is described in Chapter Four.

River Management

Law enforcement along the Cedar River is conducted by each jurisdiction’s corresponding police department.  These include the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Department, Janesville Police Department, Cedar Falls Police Department, Waterloo Police Department, Evansdale Police Department, Gilbertville Police Department, and La Porte City Police Department.  Law enforcement and emergency response personnel from one or more jurisdictions along the Cedar River have been involved in responses on the river.  However, the river and accesses are not regularly patrolled.  Numerous boating accidents and rescues and two drownings have been reported for this segment of the Cedar over the past twenty years.  Vandalism, trespassing, and other disturbances have also been reported on this segment of the river.  There are three specially-trained water rescue teams and several sets of equipment located near the water trail.

A majority of the river segments are located near adjacent roads.  Though, some areas are located further away from roadways, making emergency access more difficult.

Another aspect of water trails management is maintaining the condition of the river, such as removal of large obstructions, and maintaining the river accesses.  There is currently no entity responsible for removal of obstructions in the Cedar River, as it is so wide that obstructions don’t ever span the entire width of the river.  Obstructions like wood snags are usually temporary on the Cedar River, as the current eventually pushes them downstream.

Maintenance of each river access is the responsibility of each respective jurisdiction, with two exceptions.  The Black Hawk County Conservation Board maintains the parking lot and boat ramp at Sherwood Park in Waterloo and the river access in Gilbertville.  In addition, the Iowa DNR maintains the access at George Wyth State Park as well as the portage routes and accesses throughout the park associated with the Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail.

Physical Conditions

The way a river moves over the landscape across time is of interest to landowners, historians, and researchers.  Sections of the Cedar River have been shown to meander back and forth across the flood plain since the mid-1800s and likely prior to that.  Accordingly, the Cedar River has one of the highest amounts of measured planform change from the mid-1800s to present of any river studied for potential designation in 2014-2016.  The study segment upstream of Waverly in Bremer County is relatively sinuous and has experienced the most dramatic changes over time, while the river downstream of Waverly is noticeably straighter and matches the mid-1800s character drawn in the General Land Office survey.  The average lateral channel movement on section lines for the Cedar River study area was 0.16 miles of shift per river segment – the fourth highest average of any of the 12 rivers studied.

Several quantitative methods for estimating channel change are available even with limited data.  Historic maps provide the earliest suggestions of river alignment in Iowa.  However, river alignment on early maps can’t be quantitatively compared with later aerial photography because the maps were drawn with much different accuracy standards.  For example, Government Land Office (GLO) surveyors of the mid-1800’s as well as the 1875 Andreas Atlas preparers were required to verify the river crossing locations only at section lines.  However, important generalizations can be made about historic channel shifts and the extent of modifications using this comparison limitation.  The GLO mapping survey for Black Hawk County was completed between 1845 and 1849.  The river alignment on section lines from this survey was compared with those on the 1875 Andreas Atlas to provide context for changes during the first fifty years following Euro-American settlement.  Aerial photography of the complete channel length was compared between 1939 and 2010.  Lastly, the 1840’s and 1875 alignments were also compared with the more recent aerial photography.

The pattern of channel shifts observed upstream of Cedar Falls is still very active, and has had the greatest change in the past 30 years.  Changes include generalized down-valley channel migration and a small amount of side-valley channel migration.  These changes are most profound north of Waverly in Bremer County.  The average lateral migration measured 80 to 200 feet between 1980 and 2010.  Meander scrolls and oxbow lakes, evidence of former channel locations, are also visible on this section.  One significant and several small avulsions are also evident.  An avulsion occurs when a portion of the channel, usually a bend, is rapidly abandoned during high flows in favor of a shorter, higher gradient channel route.  These new channel segments appear as straight segments cutting off a bend in the river.  Figure 2-10 shows the avulsion in the Cedar River.

Figure 2-11 summarizes the planform changes measured for each study segment in Black Hawk County.  Segments with increases in length between the two timeframes indicate actively meandering channels while those without change indicate a stable channel planform.

Streambank erosion was not quantitatively measured for this study.  However, erosion is apparent at many locations when floating the river.  At least ten locations were identified in Black Hawk and Bremer Counties where significant streambank erosion was evident.

The edge or transition between a waterbody and its upland area is known as the riparian zone.  Landcover in a riparian area has a strong influence on water quality, streambank condition, the rate of lateral channel migration, and habitat in the area.  Research consistently shows that perennial riparian landcover such as trees, shrubs, and native grasses are more beneficial for all ecosystem services compared to development or annual row crop landcover.  A riparian area is often referred to as a “buffer” where perennial landcover is present.  The optimal width of riparian buffer vegetation is dependent upon its intended goals.  Common buffer designs range from a minimum of 100 feet to more than 500 feet.  Existing riparian buffer conditions on the Cedar River are very consistent.  Nearly all the riparian area in Black Hawk County is perennial vegetation, which is excellent for buffering water resources.

Riparian areas within 100 feet of the top of the Cedar River streambanks were evaluated using landcover data from 2013 to better understand the presence or absence of beneficial riparian buffer vegetation.  Landcover in each of the segments was divided into five types:

  • Annually cultivated crops
  • Perennial grass and alfalfa
  • Forest or predominantly tree cover
  • Wetlands
  • Other (e.g. pavement, buildings)

Figure 2-13 shows the total acres of each landcover type for each segment.  Among the 12 rivers studied in 2014 for potential water trails designation, the Cedar River buffer area in Black Hawk and Bremer Counties contained the second-largest percentage of urban impervious surfaces and the smallest percentage of annually cultivated crops.

The Cedar River is stunning for the high percentages of forested wetlands in the riparian area.  With 75 percent, or 1,581 acres, of forested wetland vegetation, the Cedar River exceeds all of the other river corridors included in the 2014 study.  All segments of the Cedar River contain at least 86 percent perennial landcover except between Island Park and the Riverview Recreation Area.  As a whole, 90 percent of the total acres have some form of vegetation landcover, while nearly 10 percent are urban impervious surfaces.  Less than one percent of the riparian buffer area is annually cultivated row crops.

Improvements that reduce soil erosion and slow overland flow into the river channel reduce the amount of pollutants entering the river.  Figure 2-15 provides information about the riparian areas at each river access existing at the time of the study.  Rip rap used in Black Hawk County is typically made up of broken concrete rather than stone.

Impaired Waters

A majority of the Cedar River in Black Hawk County is included in Iowa’s 2012 List of Impaired Waters, also known as the 303(d) List.  In addition, multiple tributaries draining into the Cedar River are listed as impaired including the Shell Rock River, West Fork Cedar River, Beaver Creek, Dry Run Creek, Black Hawk Creek, and Wolf Creek.

Nearly all the listed segments of the main channel and several of the tributaries are impaired for primary contact recreation due to levels of indicator bacteria (e.g. E. Coli) that exceed state criteria.  This type of impairment is by far the most common of Iowa’s rivers and streams.  Dry Run Creek in Cedar Falls is listed for biological impairments due to urban runoff.

A segment of one tributary to the Cedar River is included on the “Outstanding Iowa Waters” list due to exceptional aquatic diversity.  The 7.3-mile segment of Deer Creek is located in Worth County near the Minnesota-Iowa state line.  The confluence of Deer Creek and the Cedar River is located in Mitchell County.  Water bodies included on the Outstanding Iowa Waters list represent outstanding state resource waters and warrant some protections against future degradation.

The Iowa DNR lists a total of 236 contaminant sources within 0.3 miles of the Cedar River in Black Hawk and Bremer Counties.  Figure 2-17 shows the number of contaminant sources by source type.  The list includes locations from which contaminants are known to exist, but does not imply that contamination of surface water has occurred.

Watershed Characteristics

This study area is located within the Iowan Surface ecoregion in Iowa.  Figure 2-18 shows the Cedar River in Black Hawk and Bremer Counties as it relates to the Iowan Surface ecoregion and other ecoregions in the state.  There are two State-designated water trails within the Iowan Surface ecoregion, in addition to the small segment of the Cedar River already designated as part of the Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail.

The concept of “ecoregions” is used to characterize and group geographic areas with similar climate, soils, and topography. Together, these three elements result in specific plant and animal patterns and form distinct ecological patterns unique to each ecoregion.

The Iowan Surface ecoregion is distinguished by recent glacial drift landforms of the Des Moines Lobe.  There are no natural lakes of glacial origin in this area.  The southern and southeastern border of this region is irregular and crossed by major stream valleys.  In the northern portion of the region, glacial deposits are thin and shallow limestone bedrock creates karst features.

The drainage area, or watershed, draining into the Cedar River is 3,729,288 acres in total.  The vast majority of this watershed is located outside of Black Hawk County.  A total of 71 percent of the watershed acres were annually cultivated cropland in 2013.  Developed areas including roads, neighborhoods, and buildings made up 10 percent of the watershed.  Figure 2-20 shows the share of landcover types throughout the entire Cedar River watershed.

Geologically, the Cedar River in Black Hawk County flows primarily above and through Middle Devonian rocks of the Cedar Valley and Wapsipinicon groups.  A complex and interesting series of ancient bedrock channels are known collectively as the Bremer Channel, and they join the Cedar River Channel just south of Waterloo.  The oldest rocks at the bedrock surface along the Cedar River in this area are Silurian Hopkinton Formation dolomites, deposited about 400 million years ago.  These rocks lie in the deepest areas of the underlying bedrock channel and are not exposed in this area.

Population and Development

According to 2017 U.S. Census Population Estimates, there are an estimated 248,400 people living in Black Hawk County and surrounding counties (i.e. Benton, Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Grundy, and Tama).  Additionally, U.S. Highway 218 crosses the Cedar River twice, once in Janesville and once in Waterloo.  Other major highways that cross the river in Black Hawk County include Interstate 380, U.S. Highway 63, Iowa Highway 57, and Iowa Highway 58.  The highest traffic volume recorded was near the Interstate 380 bridge over the Cedar River which had an average annual daily traffic (AADT) volume of 40,900 vehicles in 2014.

Figure 2-21 shows the nearest lodging and camping accommodations to each river access as of 2018.  Distances were measured using the shortest practical route by road.  However, for several accesses, the distance is notably shorter by paved trail.  These include Gateway Park (2.9 miles to camping), Washington Park (3.0 miles to camping), George Wyth Memorial State Park (2.6 miles to lodging), Sherwood Park (1.8 miles to camping), Cedar Bend Park (3.0 miles to camping), and the Waterloo Boathouse (4.3 miles to camping).  At two accesses, Gateway Park and Washington Park, it is shorter to bicycle to the George Wyth State Park campground than it is to drive to the Black Hawk Park campground.

Cultural and Historic Resources

The river was originally named Red Cedar River by the Meskwaki tribe due to the vast quantity of red cedar trees growing along it, and the city of Waterloo was originally known as Prairie Rapids Crossing.  Prior to the cultivation of the landscape along the river banks, the Cedar River was crystal clear through much of the year.  Fish in the river abounded, and the woodland river banks were heavily vegetated and provided food for animals and humans.

When the region opened to white inhabitants in the 1830s, the Sac and Fox Indians lost their hold on the area following the Black Hawk War of 1832.  Settlements were established along water sources such as the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek for their timber and other natural resources.

The area was first settled in the mid-1840s.  In December 1945, the first newspaper was published – the Iowa State Register and Waterloo Herald.1  The first bridge over the Cedar River was built in Waterloo at Fourth Street in 1859.  Prior to that, settlers had to cross the river by fording it, or later in the 1850s by ferry.  The first dam in Black Hawk County, built of brush and logs, was built in Cedar Falls in 1848.  The second dam was completed in 1854 in Waterloo, and a sawmill was constructed at the same time.2

1 – Western Historical Company. (1878). The History of Black Hawk County, Iowa, Containing a History of the County, its Cities, Towns, Etc. Chicago: Western Historical Company.  P.383.

2 – Hartman, J.C. (1915). History of Black Hawk County, Iowa and its People, Volume 1.  S.J. Clarke Publishing Company.  P.372-378.

The Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) completed a Phase IA archeological reconnaissance survey along the route of the water trail in 2015.  Their investigation compiled and summarized prior archaeological investigations, previously recorded archaeological sites and architectural resources, National Register of Historic Places, known cemeteries, and unrecorded historical properties of possible interest.  The purpose of this investigation was to develop priority areas for further study due to possible future development, and to provide information to assist with development of interpretive materials in the water trail corridor.

The OSA study corridor included both Black Hawk Creek and the Cedar River, primarily within Bremer, Black Hawk, and Grundy Counties but also including small segments of Butler, Buchanan, and Benton Counties.  There have been at least 216 separate archaeological investigations in the overall study area.  Known cultural resources include 258 recorded archaeological sites.  A total of 46 of the sites are situated within 100 meters (330 feet) of the Black Hawk Creek or Cedar River banks.  Recorded prehistoric site types include habitation, isolated burials, isolated find, lithic scatter, mound(s), resource procurement, scatter, and village.

Figure 2-22 lists developed historic sites available for the public to visit near the Cedar River.  All sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).  Museums are denoted with an asterisk (*).

There are also numerous public lands and recreation areas near the Cedar River, in addition to the above-mentioned parks with river accesses.  Several of these areas are County-owned wildlife and natural areas which are generally left undeveloped.  Figure 2-23 outlines each recreation area and the activities available at each location.

Several cultural attractions are also located near the Cedar River including over a dozen museums.  Several of these destinations are situated immediately next to the river, such as the Ice House Museum in Cedar Falls and Phelps Youth Pavilion in Waterloo.  The proximity of downtown Cedar Falls and downtown Waterloo to the Cedar River make the water trail a unique experience combining remote wilderness areas with historic urban centers.  Figure 2-24 describes various art museums and outdoor destinations situated near the Cedar River.

More information on attractions in the Cedar Valley can be found on the following websites:

 

Natural Resources

Most of the Cedar River in Black Hawk and Bremer Counties is considered a priority for conservation by the Iowa Wildlife Action Plan. This is due to several factors: The Nature Conservancy’s designation of the Cedar River as an aquatic habitat priority, the existence of two 2000-acre complexes of land conserved, and the designation of the two Important Bird Areas described later.

The above average biological diversity in the Cedar River basin is explained in part by the features of the Iowan Surface ecoregion.  This ecoregion occupies much of the northeast corner of the state and has gently rolling topography, relatively shallow or no loess covering, an abundance of glacial gravels, and bedrock relatively near the surface – especially in stream valleys.  In addition, post-glacial colonization of Ozarkian fish fauna (e.g., American brook lamprey, gravel chub, Ozark minnow, banded darter) found the post-glacial northern Iowa streams inhabitable, compared to the more turbid streams of southern Iowa with higher rates of erosion, steeper topography, and deeper loess soils.

Aquatic Species

Organisms living in the river ecosystem are one of the most obvious wildlife-related resources associated with a water trail.  Various types of standard assessments quantify fish as well as benthic macroinvertebrates.  Benthic macroinvertebrates are organisms without backbones we can see without magnification living on, in, or near a river or lake.  As described earlier, the aquatic species found living in a water body are directly related to its water quality and riparian condition.

Statewide analysis of the presence and absence of aquatic species was conducted in 2000.  This analysis used Iowa’s Ambient Water Monitoring data which includes the highest quality species monitoring and water quality sampling data available.  Fifteen years of monitoring data from reference sites were used to generally characterize conditions statewide based on ecoregion areas.  From this analysis, the greatest diversity of native fish species and the highest number of macroinvertebrate species, on average, were found in the Iowan Surface ecoregion.  The Cedar River is located in the Iowan Surface ecoregion.

General fish species maps generated by Iowa DNR in 2010 as a part of the Iowa Dams Plan included 24 species known to occur in the Cedar River corridor.  These species included Bigmouth Shiner, Black Crappie, Bluegill, Bluntnose Minnow, Bullhead Minnow, Channel Catfish, Common Carp, Golden Redhorse, Green Sunfish, Highfin Carpsucker, Johnny Darter, Largemouth Bass, Moxostoma, Northern Hog Sucker, Orangespotted Sunfish, Quillback Carpsucker, River Carpsucker, Sand Shiner, Shorthead Redhorse, Silver Redhorse, Smallmouth Bass, Spotfin Shiner, and Walleye.  More detailed inventory assessments of both benthic macroinvertebrates on the Cedar River in Bremer and Black Hawk Counties identified a mix of “good” and “fair” conditions for fish.

Additionally, Iowa DNR mussel survey data from 2013 identified a range of between three and 10 living species in the study segment.  Only six of 12 proposed water trail study corridors have mussel data.  Of these six, the Cedar River had the second highest number of species found.  Only the Iowa River in Johnson and Louisa Counties had a higher number of species recorded.

Two State-Threatened fish species, the American Brook Lamprey (Lethenteron appendix) and the Western Sand Darter (Etheostoma clarum) are also known to exist in the Cedar River within the corridor of the proposed water trail.

Bird Species

Breeding birds is of great interest to many Iowans.  The Breeding Bird Atlas is a source of breeding bird data used throughout the United States and Canada.  Each atlas project within a state or province uses approximately 20 hours per study block of observation time to record breeding activity over a course of five years.  Study blocks include three-by-three-mile blocks systematically selected across the state.  These atlas project survey areas record evidence of breeding.  The Breeding Bird Atlas has been compiled twice in Iowa with the most recent compilation from 2008 to 2012.

Eight study blocks were located on the Cedar River in this study area.  Two blocks are upstream of Waverly, three between Janesville and Island Park in Cedar Falls, and three downstream of Cedar Terrace Park in Waterloo.

The number of bird species identified in the study blocks as well as the number of Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) were both in the average range for rivers of this size included in this study.  A total of 106 species were present, and 24 of these are included on Iowa’s SGCN list.  Figure 2-27 lists SGCNs identified breeding on or near the Cedar River.  A full list of species reported in these study blocks is included in Appendix C.

Two Important Bird Areas (IBA) intersect the study corridor: The Cedar Valley Nature Trail and George Wyth State Park/Hartman Reserve.  These special designations are non-regulatory and are meant to highlight the unique value of the areas designated and encourage conservation efforts to sustain their value to wildlife and people.

In addition to Red-shouldered Hawk nests, the Cedar River Corridor contains several Bald Eagle Nest Sites.  In general, river corridors are high potential areas for Bald Eagle Nest Sites and Colonial Waterbird Rookeries (e.g., Great Blue Heron, Double-crested Cormorant).

Plant Species

State-Threatened plant species expected within the corridor include Sweet Indian Plantain (Cacalia suaveolens) and Kitten Tails (Besseya bullii).

State-Special Concern plant species include Bent Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus), Glade Mallow (Napaea dioica), and Ledge Spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris).  Sweet Indian Plantain and Glade Mallow occur on riverbanks, on floodplains, and in riparian forests.  Kitten Tails, Bent Milkvetch, and Ledge Spikemoss occur on sandy soils that are open or partially shaded.  Sparta and Chelsea soil series are good predictors of potential habitat.

Other Species

The Endangered Blue-Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma laterale), and the State-Endangered Wood Turtle (Clemmys insculpta) are also known to exist along the Cedar River study area.

Visual Resources

The quality of what paddlers look at while on the river is an important element in designating a state water trail. Views of the surrounding landscape near the river and the top of the streambank are the most widely seen elements beyond the water surface.  Much of the Cedar River water trail study area is well-treed with wide riparian forest zones.  The floodplain is large and flat with feeder streams – possibly drainage ditch water – coming in on both sides.

The abundant wildlife in this area adds to the study area’s visual resources.  Berry shrubs treat paddlers in the later summer months to views of many fruit-eating bird species.  Wildlife from birds to deer can be seen in both the undeveloped and the urban sections of this water trail study area.

A firsthand account of the visual resources and wildlife along the Cedar River was recorded by wildlife biologist Dr. James Pease, and it is included in Appendix D.