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Enthusiasm for water trails in the state was now escalating. The Iowa Legislature established the DNR-led water trails program in 2008.

By 2011 Iowa — with 18,000 miles of navigable waterways — counted nearly 900 miles of designated water trails with another 600 miles under development.

Nate Hoogeveen, DNR director of river programs and avid paddler, took the lead in developing Iowa’s state water trail plan, a framework for low-head dam mitigation and trail development that has since become a national model.

A water trails toolkit helps trail developers protect the water, maximize the assets of each waterway, produce essential signage, and meet the needs of local communities and trail users.

Communities embrace water trails for different reasons, says Hoogeveen.

“People want to make something of what they’ve had all along. Rural economic development, watershed, and water quality — each project has its own focus.”

State-designated water trails provide a variety of experiences and are labeled for necessary skill level: Gateway for beginning paddlers, Recreational and Challenge for those with more paddling experience, Wilderness segments (with limited access and fewer amenities) for paddlers willing to rough it.

Photo courtesy Cindy Pearson-Cole.

One of the newest water trails, dedicated in 2011, is a 50-mile stretch on the Middle River across Madison County and into neighboring Adair County.

It’s only natural that the river flowing under those famous covered bridges would attract attention, too.

“We saw the river as such a resource that we decided to work for a water trail designation,” says Jim Liechty of the Madison County Conservation Board, who’d been working with a dedicated group of volunteers on annual river cleanup days.

After securing a grant and developing a site-specific plan, volunteers joined local, county, and state organizations to restore flood-damaged embankments, improve accesses, and install signage on the roadways, access areas, and bridges.

Two years later the new water trail was ready for the dedication. Paddlers had been using the trail since spring, but by the scheduled October event, a drought had made the river too low to float. Organizers didn’t expect much of a crowd.

Some 150 paddlers were undeterred. “We did a river walk instead,” says Liechty, recalling the eager devotees.

(Read more about River Relationships)

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