Cedar Rapids Takes Step to Ease Longstanding Ban on Swimming in the Cedar River

By Rick Smith, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – A prohibition some 70 to 80 years old against swimming in any part of the Cedar River in the city has taken a first stroke and leg kick toward change.

The city's River Recreation Commission on Thursday approved a proposed change in a city ordinance that specifically would allow swimming in Mohawk Cove, a backwater across the river from the Ellis Boat Harbor.

The ordinance-change language also would give the city's Parks and Recreation Department the ability to identify additional appropriate spots for public swimming and grant special permission for swimming there.

With the commission's approval, the matter now will go to the City Council's Public Safety Committee, likely in November, and from there to the full City Council if the committee endorses the relaxation of the swimming prohibition.

Sven Leff, the city's new parks and recreation director, took some credit on Thursday for the push to allow swimming in certain safe spots along the river, saying he grew up in Minnesota and swam in the Mississippi River and came to Cedar Rapids two years ago from Reno, Nev., where it was common to swim in the Truckee River.

"When I got here, I wondered why we don't allow swimming in the river ... and why we were not doing more to enjoy the river," Leff said. "I've always been around water, and I've never been afraid to swim or boat in it. It doesn't need to be scary."

He said the proposed change to the city's swimming prohibition ordinance is "not overly permissive," and he said Mohawk Cove is a good place to begin to allow river swimming. He said the cove is out of the river current and is cleaner than the river because some of the water comes into it after being filtered by sand.

Leff said the city would inspect Mohawk Cove to see if there are any spots that should be off limits before opening it up for swimming. Signs would that no lifeguards will be on duty and swimmers swim at their own risk, he added.

He said other backwaters of the river eventually also could be designated for swimming, and he pointed to one near Seminole Valley Park upstream from Ellis and Mohawk parks as one possibility.
For now, the city's Prairie Park Fishery, created from a former quarry at 2125 Otis Rd. SE and fed by the Cedar River, will remain off limits to swimming.

On Thursday, Leff thought the day might come where swimming might be allowed in a part of the former quarry, though Daniel Gibbins, the city's parks superintendent who reports to Leff, said it would need some serious study and discussion.

Gibbins said the former quarry has steep banks and deep water, and one narrow section is where boats with trolling motors pass through, he added.

He noted that plans for the fishery had called for the establishment of a beach area, but funds for the amenity ran out. Any beach likely would be overtopped with water and damaged as the level of the fishery rises when the river rises to flood stage periodically, Gibbins said.

Establishing a beach and allowing swimming in the fishery isn't a priority, Leff said. But he added that the idea might move ahead with a private sponsor and some donated sand.

Leff said the city has not been able to determine for certain when the city put the river-swimming prohibition in place, but it appeared it was 70 to 80 years ago, he said.

Leff on Thursday told the River Recreation Commission that it was nice to see kayakers in the river downtown last Friday when the city opened its new riverfront amphitheater.

Tom Furnish Jr., the commission chairman, reported that he had traveled to Charles City to see its whitewater kayak course on the Cedar River.
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