Bringing Back Mississippi Riverfront Towns Through Bike Trails and Wetlands

Organizations like River Action in Davenport, Iowa, work with governments and businesses to rebuild riverfront communities.

Downtown Davenport, Iowa
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Feb. 11, 2014, 5:27 a.m.

The Mis­sis­sippi River has come a long way since Huck Finn went raft­ing down the banks of the wa­ter­way that flows from north­ern Min­nesota to the Gulf of Mex­ico.

In that time, the Great River has transitioned from steam­boat com­merce to broad­er ag­ri­cul­tur­al and in­dus­tri­al de­vel­op­ment. But time hasn’t been a friend to the com­munit­ies that sit on the shores of the second-longest river in the coun­try: Pol­lu­tion levels rose stead­ily and de­vel­op­ment des­troyed much of the nat­ur­al wild­life that used to grace its shores.

However, in re­cent dec­ades, dif­fer­ent river­front-de­vel­op­ment or­gan­iz­a­tions have sprung up along the Mis­sis­sippi River that have helped boost com­munit­ies’ eco­nom­ies, pro­mote re­cre­ation, and stem the flow of pol­lu­tion.

One of those groups is River Ac­tion — a small non­profit out­fit based in Dav­en­port, Iowa, one of the cit­ies in Illinois and Iowa that make up the Quad Cit­ies area along the Mis­sis­sippi and Rock Rivers. The area has a long in­dus­tri­al his­tory, hav­ing served as the hub for John Deere, an ag­ri­cul­ture ma­chinery com­pany.

Now in its 30th year, the group not only leads edu­ca­tion­al ef­forts about the im­port­ant wa­ter­way, but also seeks fed­er­al and state grants for pro­jects that help boost loc­al com­merce and the en­vir­on­ment. A new fo­cus on river­front de­vel­op­ment has made down­town areas on both sides of Mis­sis­sippi River en­joy boom­ing hous­ing and busi­ness, all without for­get­ting its in­dus­tri­al past. Now, the Quad Cit­ies area is seen as one of the most af­ford­able areas in the coun­try, rank­ing second in the na­tion for beat­ing the hous­ing bubble.

“We want to get people to the river to get that first-hand per­son­al ex­per­i­ence,” said Amy Band­man, pro­gram dir­ect­or at River Ac­tion. “We can cre­ate bet­ter stew­ards of the en­vir­on­ment by our rivers through these edu­ca­tion­al and en­vir­on­ment­al pro­jects.”

One of the biggest is­sues fa­cing the Quad Cit­ies is the en­vir­on­ment­al dam­age that dec­ades of ag­ri­cul­ture, re­ly­ing heav­ily on pesti­cides, have done to the area wa­ter, wild­life, marshes, and wet­lands. In or­der to deal with these run­off pol­lut­ants — fer­til­izers, chem­ic­als, oil, grease, sed­i­ment, salts, and bac­teria — River Ac­tion worked with the Illinois En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency on sev­er­al re­cent pro­jects.

To pre­vent these pol­lut­ants from en­ter­ing the Rock River, in this latest ex­ample, the group provided fund­ing and man­aged the res­tor­a­tion of a stream bank and nat­ive plants on a com­mer­cial drain­age ditch in Rock Is­land, Ill. Ad­di­tion­ally, it helped build rain gar­dens on a Black Hawk Col­lege park­ing lot in Moline, Ill., and also worked on restor­ing wet­lands and streams in a nature pre­serve in the same town. This sort of wet­land res­tor­a­tion is hap­pen­ing all over the coun­try, not just along the Mis­sis­sippi River.

Bey­ond these pro­grams, River Ac­tion has been key to de­vel­op­ing more than 65 miles of river­front bik­ing and walk­ing trails in the Quad Cit­ies area. When the or­gan­iz­a­tion was foun­ded 30 years ago, there were only two miles of trails.

“The city of Dav­en­port doesn’t have the time or money to put in­to a pro­ject like this, but the or­gan­iz­a­tion can do that,” Band­man said. “We make the changes hap­pen. We bring every­one to­geth­er to do it.”

When Fath­er’s Day rolls around in June — right about the time that weath­er starts to get con­sist­ently warm in the Mid­w­est — the group hosts an event called Ride the River for fam­il­ies to en­joy the trails, along with pic­nics, fish­ing, and games. The event starts in the morn­ing in down­town Dav­en­port, as hun­dreds of people ride up to Betten­dorf, Iowa, cross the river on a barge, and fin­ish on the Illinois side. All of the pro­ceeds for the event go to­ward fu­ture trail de­vel­op­ment, and the events bring in spon­sor­ship from loc­al busi­nesses.

Bring­ing people to the river­front, where loc­al shops and res­taur­ants sit, al­lows busi­nesses to thrive in these com­munit­ies along the Mis­sis­sippi River. Also, since the com­munity gets much of its wa­ter from the river, us­ing bet­ter en­vir­on­ment­al prac­tices in the area in turn cre­ates clean­er wa­ter and saves tax dol­lars.

The Mis­sis­sippi River, however, is still one of the most pol­luted wa­ter­ways in the United States. But River Ac­tion is just one of the many groups try­ing to im­prove the en­vir­on­ment and the eco­nom­ics of river­front towns that Mark Twain once called “pleas­ing to the eye, and cheer­ing to the spir­it.”

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