Chapter 1: Project Background



The scope of this Water Trails Master Plan includes three water trails within Black Hawk County:

    • Cedar River Water Trail
    • Black Hawk Creek Water Trail
    • Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail

A total of eight jurisdictions are directly involved with the planning process, as outlined in Figure 1-1.  The number of existing river accesses managed by each jurisdiction is shown below for each water trail:

In a few cases, a river access is situated within city limits but managed by another entity.  In Waterloo, the George Wyth State Park access is managed by the Iowa DNR and the Sherwood Park access is managed by the Black Hawk County Conservation Board.  In Gilbertville, the Gilbertville Park access is also managed by the County Conservation Board.  The grounds and other park amenities at Sherwood Park and Gilbertville Park are maintained by the respective city.

Multiple jurisdictions within Black Hawk County are not directly included in this plan document, the largest of which is La Porte City (pop. 2,743).  La Porte City is currently developing two river accesses along Wolf Creek, a tributary to the Cedar River not included in the Master Plan project scope.  These local efforts are supported by the Water Trails Master Plan, even though Wolf Creek is not a candidate for State Water Trails designation at this time.   Development of local river accesses is in line with the plan goals addressed later in this chapter.

The cities of Dunkerton (pop. 845), Elk Run Heights (pop. 1,009), and Raymond (pop. 691) are also not included in this document.  Dunkerton is situated along Crane Creek which is a tributary to the Wapsipinicon River.  Though the Wapsipinicon River travels through the northeast corner of Black Hawk County, it is also not included in the scope of this plan.  The Wapsipinicon River is a State-designated water trail in Buchanan County, though it remains unstudied for designation in Black Hawk and Bremer Counties at this time.  These areas may be good candidates for future study.  Likewise, the Cedar River in Bremer County as well as Black Hawk Creek in Grundy County are also potential areas for future study and consideration.

Steering Committee

Eleven steering committee meetings were held between June 2017 and December 2018 to guide development of the Water Trails Master Plan.  Development of the Master Plan was led by INRCOG.  Figure 1-2 lists all individuals who have participated in more than one steering committee meeting.  On average, 16 individuals attended each meeting.

Plan Goals

During the first steering committee, participants discussed positive outcomes they would like to see from the Water Trails Master Plan process.  Responses included the following themes, which are to be considered the goals of this plan (in no particular order):

    1. Increased public appreciation and awareness of the rivers
    2. Improved water quality
    3. Emphasis on public safety
    4. Improved public knowledge of proper river use
    5. Improved public policy and state legislation
    6. Ease of access to the rivers and new recreational opportunities
    7. River developed as a community resource
    8. Water recreation as a rapidly growing activity is addressed
    9. Improved quality of life and economic development
    10. Levee integrity is maintained

Developing a public input process for the Master Plan was among the primary responsibilities of the steering committee.  There was much discussion about past efforts to involve the public in water trails planning, most notably in neighboring Bremer and Grundy Counties.  The steering committee was aware that a number of topics related to water trails planning could be viewed as controversial and could potentially disrupt future public involvement efforts.  Such topics include the following:

    • Private property considerations for landowners and paddlers
    • Dams and whitewater courses
    • Public safety and emergency response
    • Dredging
    • The definition of a water trail

Handouts were developed by the steering committee to address each of these topics.  The handouts were available at both public meetings described in Chapter Three.  A copy of each handout is included on the Meeting Materials page.

The steering committee also had a role in defining the scope of the plan, identifying responsibilities among jurisdictions, developing a public input survey, determining each river segment’s experience classification, developing an interactive website, organizing public input meetings, and reviewing projects proposed for the water trails.  Altogether, an estimated 269 individual-hours were invested by steering committee participants.  This does not include time spent on activities outside of the steering committee meetings.

Floodplain Development and History

Cedar Valley Lakes

Conceptual planning for the Cedar Valley Lakes began in the late 1960s which ultimately led to the creation of the Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail.  The Cedar Valley Lakes and many surrounding recreational trails were developed in tandem with the construction of U.S. Highway 218 in the early 1990s (then U.S. Highway 20).

Prior to the construction of U.S. Highway 218, many of the lakes surrounding the Cedar River were only drawings on paper.  Fisher Lake is the only natural lake in this whole area, while the remaining lakes are manmade.  A conceptual plan developed by INRCOG in the 1970s is shown below.  There are several differences between the 1970s conceptual plan and the lakes today.  For example, Alice Wyth Lake is shown on the west of “Freeway 518” (now Iowa Highway 58), however it is situated east of Iowa Highway 58 today.  The highways and interchanges are also in different locations today than originally envisioned.

The Cedar Valley Lakes Board was formed in 1985 to create a water-oriented recreation and conservation greenbelt along the Cedar River.  The board remained active through the 1990s and was instrumental in overseeing a variety of improvements along the river.  With the completion of the highway program in 2003, the Cedar Valley Lakes Board disbanded while other advocacy groups such as the Cedar Trails Partnership were formed.

In 2007, the original Black Hawk County Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) Plan was completed.  The plan identified goals, objectives, initiatives, and projects related to the County’s natural resources.  The Cedar River was an important focal point of this plan.  Later that year, the Cedar River Initiative was formed.

Cedar River Initiative

When the Cedar River Initiative formed in 2007, stakeholders developed a mission to guide decision-making:

“Increase public use and enjoyment of the Cedar River and its watershed, and enhance environmental health, cultural heritage and economic development opportunities of this special resource.”

Meeting were held monthly from March 2008 until the June 2008 floods.  In October 2008, the first post-flood Cedar River Initiative meeting was held.  Participants reviewed and confirmed the mission and its continued applicability within the context of the flood.  An assessment was conducted to determine whether the community would benefit from Long-Term Community Recovery (LTCR) support after the flood.  It was determined that ten Iowa communities would benefit from additional recovery resources.  In the case of the Cedar River Initiative, LTCR provided a Technical Advisor to coordinate resources and develop tools and materials to assist with project development.  During the period of LTCR support, three workshops and community meetings were conducted.

The Cedar River Initiative organizational structure was committee-based, with work focused around four committees: Infrastructure, Water Quality, Marketing and Advocacy, and Special Projects.  The planning process led to the development of a workplan for the following year.

Several projects and programs followed the Cedar River Initiative planning process: Iowa Great Places designation, the River Renaissance redevelopments along the Cedar River, planning and development for the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek Water Trails, involvement with the Cedar River Watershed Coalition, and involvement with Iowa Rivers Revival.

Iowa Great Places

In 2009, the Cedar Valley was designated as a Great Place under the Iowa Great Places program.  A Visioning Committee was established to pursue Great Places designation prior to the 2008 floods.  After the floods, the committee decided to wait one year to submit a Great Places application.  In light of the floods, the committee decided to shift the focus of the Great Places application to the Cedar River with an emphasis on rebuilding and expanding riverfront amenities.  The proposal submitted for Great Places consideration included five projects with budgets, timelines, and funding sources identified for each project.  All of these projects have since been completed, and all projects areas are included in the scope of this Water Trails Master Plan:

    • Island Park Beach House construction in Cedar Falls
    • Ice House Museum restoration in Cedar Falls
    • Washington Park restoration in Cedar Falls
    • Cedar River Boat House in Waterloo
    • RiverLoop Trails in Waterloo

In 2019, the Cedar Valley was redesignated by the Iowa Great Places program.  As part of the redesignation process, several community stakeholders came together to develop the Cedar Valley Visioning Plan including Grow Cedar Valley, Cedar Falls Tourism and Visitors Bureau, Experience Waterloo, City of Cedar Falls, City of Waterloo, and INRCOG.  The Vision Plan’s goals include improving quality of life, developing recreational facilities, and creating spaces that support living, working, and playing.  The top vision area identified by the plan is building a connection to the rivers.  In 2021, the Cedar Valley was awarded $150,000 by the Iowa Great Places program to develop and improve river access in downtown Cedar Falls and downtown Waterloo.

Initial Water Trails Planning

The Iowa DNR’s Water Trails program began in 2005.  Two years later, the first water trail was completed under the DNR program – the Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail.  Unlike most water trails which are exclusively river runs, the Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail includes six lakes, the Cedar River, and several portages on land.  To this day, the Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail remains a unique water trail in the state for this reason.  The inclusion of lakes and portages gives beginners a chance to develop the skills needed for more advanced paddling destinations, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota.

Black Hawk Creek from Grundy Center to the confluence with the Cedar River was nearly designated as a State water trail in 2011.  Signs were installed at each access along Black Hawk Creek, including the three accesses included in the scope of this Master Plan.  However, a new process for the State-designation of water trails soon followed which necessitated a more in-depth study of stream conditions, wildlife, water quality, and existing development along the rivers.  It was determined that an Existing Conditions report and a Water Trails Master Plan would be required for State-designation of Black Hawk Creek and the Cedar River.

From 2012 to 2014, numerous meetings were held to discuss the development of the two water trails.  The original scope for the Cedar River Water Trail included Black Hawk and Bremer Counties, while the scope for the Black Hawk Creek Water Trail included Black Hawk and Grundy Counties.  Much focus during this time was on the Cedar River in Bremer County.  Open house public input events were held in June 2012 to receive input from landowners in Bremer and Black Hawk Counties.  Several meetings followed, many of which were held at Waverly City Hall.  In July 2013, Dr. Jim Pease conducted a presentation with optional paddle trip along the Cedar River.  Meanwhile, public outreach efforts were underway in Grundy County.  Stakeholder meetings followed in early 2013 which led to the development of a survey of landowners in Black Hawk and Grundy Counties.  Over half of the 101 surveys sent were returned, and 53 percent of respondents indicated they either “oppose” or “strongly oppose” the designation of Black Hawk Creek as a water trail.  Given the tepid response from landowners, project leaders decided it would be best to refocus the project scope to only Black Hawk County where a large share of land surrounding the rivers is publicly owned.

Several public events were also held during this time including the Cedar River Festival, Cedar River ROCKS! Event, Cedar River Watershed Coalition Field Day, the Best Dam Fun Run, a mussel workshop, two “River of Dreams” poker run canoe/kayak events, and the Northeast Iowa Paddle Fest at Hartman Reserve Nature Center.

In 2016, reports were completed on the existing conditions of the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek.  The results of these reports are included in Chapter Two.  In late 2016, the Iowa DNR and INRCOG signed a contract to complete a Water Trails Master Plan for the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek in Black Hawk County.

Flood Mitigation

The majority of levees in Black Hawk County were constructed in 1982, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers National Levee Database.  The levee surrounding downtown Cedar Falls was built in 2000.  Figure 1-4 shows the location of flood levees today, as identified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The rivers in Black Hawk County have an extensive history of flooding.  Many record flood events have occurred in recent years including the floods of 1993, 1999, 2008, and 2016.  At the time, the flood of 1993 led to the second highest river crest ever recorded in Cedar Falls.   Six years later, the flood of 1999 resulted in record-breaking water levels at the Janesville and Cedar Falls river gauges.  The 2008 flood was estimated to be a 500-year (or 0.2 percent chance) flood event.  On June 10, 2008, the river crested at 27.01 feet in Waterloo, 5.15 feet above the previous record.  The flood of 2008 remains the highest crest recorded at the three Cedar River gauges in the county.  Interestingly, the highest crest recorded on Black Hawk Creek in Hudson was two months prior in April 2008.  Finally, in 2016, the Cedar River reached its second highest levels ever, second only to the 2008 flood.  However, unlike 2008, the flood of 2016 resulted in significantly less damage to property and cropland.

An extensive effort of property buyouts followed the 1993, 1999, and 2008 floods to remove structures from the floodplain and eliminate repetitive-loss properties.  Property owners with sustained damage greater than a specified percentage of their home’s total value were offered 110 percent of their home’s fair market value.  The vast majority of homeowners took advantage of these buyouts, though some opted to raise the elevation of their homes instead, and a handful declined the buyout offer altogether.  Nonetheless, over 100 properties were purchased in Cedar Falls after the 2008 flood alone, and hundreds of homes have been removed throughout the county over the past few decades.

These buyouts led to the creation of public lands and greenspace in some areas.  Two newly created areas relate directly to the Cedar River water trail.  Gateway Park in Cedar Falls and Sherwood Park in Waterloo are now developed city parks with access to the Cedar River.  These parks were once residential neighborhoods only two decades ago.  The photos below show the Gateway Park area before and after the extensive flood buyouts:

Flooding had less impact on the Black Hawk Creek Water Trail and Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail.  Much of the developed area surrounding Black Hawk Creek in Waterloo is levee protected.  The Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail is mainly within George Wyth State Park, and there are no homes within the park.

Maps of the Water Trails


There are a variety of land uses surrounding the Cedar River and Black Hawk Creek, ranging from protected bottomland forests to densely populated city centers.  The following maps show various features along the water trails including parks, hazards, camping areas, and bicycle accommodations:


City Parks

County Parks

State Parks

Cedar Valley Paddlers Trail



Bicycle Accommodations

Water Features Not Included