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Unifying and promoting Iowa's waterways
By: Tribune editorial board April 30, 2002
Iowa's waterways are one such overlooked resource. Much more can be done to promote their use.
Iowa - A nice place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit there. That's the assessment of a social policy maker from Des Moines in response to a recent study of how well states take care of people (see A1, today's Tribune).
      That's about as backhanded as it comes. Yes, Iowa is a great place to live. Most people who do will tell you that. And it's not just social services that make this a happy home. Small towns, clean air, solid families, good schools - these are the things that make Iowa fertile ground for growing people, along with corn and beans.
      But when it comes to tourism, Iowa hides its light under a bushel. And by failing to draw attention to its abundant natural resources, it runs the risk of ignoring them all together.
      Iowa's waterways are one such overlooked resource. Much more can be done to promote their use.
      On Saturday, a group of kayakers from Iowa State University explored a possibility. Onion Creek, a tiny trickle flowing into Squaw Creek from the west, swelled to floatable proportions due to last week's rains, allowing a rare opportunity to plumb hidden corners in Story County. Spring wildflowers, limestone outcroppings, and a few playful riffles greeted the paddlers. Such a view is not typical of Iowa - on the water is one of the few places in this flat state where you can feel "down in," immersed in the landscape.
      The creek also illustrates the barriers to promoting Iowa's rivers. It is crossed in may spots not only by dead trees but by barbed wire. Iowa's landowner rights and public right of way are competing values that must be addressed everywhere access to waterways is made. And a couple of rotting animal carcasses, not to mention the rich brown hue of the water, told of how Iowa's rivers are allowed to carry away the state's primary capital - it's fertility.
      But Onion Creek is a micro-attraction. It is not suitable most of the time for supporting recreation. It serves only as an example. For real potential, the Skunk River, the Boone and the Des Moines are the kind of rivers that carry much more appeal.
      There are efforts afoot. The Iowa Water Trail Association is a loose coalition of people across the state interested in promoting canoe trails and increased use of Iowa's waterways. Better access points and better awareness are primary thrusts for building that resource.
      Funding for access and improvements can be available through Iowa's Federal Recreational Trails Program grants. Water trails are eligible for funding through the trails program and thus they are included in the Iowa Trails 2000 plan.      Federal funds will pay up to 80 percent of eligible expenses for projects sponsored by public agencies.
      The Des Moines River is maybe the most high-profile waterway in the state, and would be a great boost for establishing a statewide water trail network. There's about 100 miles of river that could provide recreation for Iowans and non-Iowans, through virtually every aspect of Iowa's geography, including its largest city.
      What's needed is improved access, restrooms, boat ramps above and below dams and portage routes to connect them, brochures, and better visibility.
      An Iowa water trail logo has been developed to help unify the effort. The first signs are being made now for the Skunk River in Story County, where County Conservation already has established several developed access points. The logo and sign can be adapted for water trails across the state. Watch for the signs this summer.
      Onion Creek may never be such an attraction. It is a tiny feeder stream for the rivers that can support recreation. But the awareness built by use of these waterways can help even tributaries remain clean and valuable.
      And then maybe a few more folks will come for a visit.

©Ames Tribune 2002
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