River Recreation Group Eyes Legal Swimming in the Cedar River

By Dave Franzman, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - An ordinance decades old prohibits swimming in the Cedar River inside city limits. But members of the city's River Recreation Commission are looking at ways to amend the ordinance about swimming, in certain locations, as a way to get more people interested in using the river.

One potential spot for a river beach is an area along the Cedar River usually referred to as "the cove." It's a protected backwater next to Mohawk Park located directly across the river from better-known Ellis Park. The area was created decades ago when the Iowa Department of Transportation needed fill dirt to build Interstate 380. Water eventually filled the depression and a small channel connects it to the main part of the Cedar River.

Strange as it sounds now, swimming in the Cedar River was a common recreational activity in the early part of the 1900's. A public swimming area called "Ellis Beach" operated along Ellis Blvd. N.W. until the city opened a municipal pool in that area in the 1940's.

Carl Cortez, a member of the city river commission, said commissioners aren't talking about anything elaborate. And the commission is just at the point now of discussing how to word a change in the city ordinance to allow limited river swimming. Any proposal would have to go through the city's public safety commission as well as the city council.

But Cortez, who guided his pontoon boat through the cove Friday afternoon, said one point in "the cove" would seem like a natural spot. He said if you did minimal grading and added sand, you could have a free "swim-at-your-own-risk" beach protected from the stronger river currents.

"This water is filtered, it comes through the sand and it doesn't really come in the entrance from the main channel much. It's a lot cleaner than the river on the other side of the sandbar," Cortez said.

Cortez said informal swimming goes on in the cove now and creating an actual legal beach area might make it safer.

Rob Wagner, a city recreation staffer who works with the river recreation group, also sees another advantage is making selective spots on the Cedar legal for swimming. Wagner said he's actually considered organizing a big crowd event like a triathlon that could use part of the Cedar River for the swimming portion of the competition. He can't now because the city ordinance wouldn't allow it.

"More and more people are looking for open water swimming and that is to help them train for triathlons. So there is a possibility we could have part of a triathlon here in the cove for perhaps at the Prairie Park Fishery lake," Wagner said.

Another backwater area, Cedar Lake next to I-380, is also under consideration for more river recreation uses. Commission member Felicia Wyrick said Cedar Lake wouldn't be a candidate for swimming like the cove. But the lake could prove more sail boating and kayaking opportunities. Wyrick would like to see someone operate a rental concession to get more non-motorized boats out on the lake.

"There's a misperception it's not safe to be in this water and that's not true anymore," Wyrick said.

Commission members admit they would have to overcome the "yuck" factor to convince more people to use the Cedar River in new ways—like swimming in approved areas. But they point out people pay now to go swimming at state park beaches like nearby Pleasant Creek in Palo. And they insist the water quality in the cove area of the Cedar River is the same.

Commissioners hope to work on revising the ordinance this winter with an idea to opening up more of the river for more opportunities in 2014.
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