The state has initiated a campaign to improve the behavior of paddlers and tube floaters on Iowa rivers.
“We hope the campaign — ‘Keep it Clean, Keep it Fun for Everyone’ — will reduce the incidence of bad behavior,” which include trespassing, littering, public nudity and urination, vulgar language and drunkenness, Nate Hoogeveen, the Department of Natural Resources’ river programs coordinator, said Monday.
Enhanced enforcement will be a key part of the campaign, along with materials encouraging river users to report illegal activities and the distribution of green mesh bags that recreationists can use to collect litter.
“We need support locally to report problems and hold individuals accountable for their behavior,” said DNR Director Chuck Gipp.
“Sometimes river users think they are beyond public scrutiny and accountability. We want to introduce an extra little reality check that will remind them that their behavior affects landowners, other recreationists and the rivers themselves,” Hoogeveen said.
The problem snapped into sharp focus a year ago when the Linn County Conservation Department hosted a public meeting in Central City to introduce plans to develop a 33-mile water trail on the Wapsipinicon River from Troy Mills to Stone City.
More than 100 people turned out to report a litany of excesses and abuses that ran the gamut from loud music to bridge-jumping, with intoxication a common denominator.
Their message, distilled to its essence, was that establishing a water trail, with improved access and signage, would only invite more troublemakers to the river.
“We knew there were some issues, but we were surprised by the number of people who expressed resistance to the water trail,” said Dennis Goemaat, deputy director of the Linn County Conservation Department.
Goemaat said he thinks the DNR initiative will curb abuses and foster enjoyment and appreciation of the state’s premier natural resources.
The DNR also met last fall with stakeholders along another popular stream that had been proposed for water trail status — the Upper Iowa River in northeast Iowa, where local landowners reported similar abuses.
Lora Friest, executive director of Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development in Postville, said state designation of part of the Upper Iowa as a water trail would likely help improve behavior of paddlers and tubers.
Water trails, she said, typically attract people who care about rivers and the environment, people who set a good example for others to follow.
“Our rivers are an important public-private interface. We are trying to work with landowners, government agencies and river users to manage that interface in a positive way,” she said.
The Turkey River Water Trail in Fayette and Clayton counties stands out as an example of a popular recreational river that is generally respected and appreciated by its users.
“The quality of people recreating on the Turkey has actually gotten better” since the water trail was designated two years ago, said Rod Marlatt, director of the Fayette County Conservation Department.
“Not that it was bad before,” he said.
During the four-day Fourth of July weekend, more than 1,000 people paddled or floated on the Turkey River from Clermont to Elgin, with the only noticeable ill effect being an anticipated increase in litter, Marlatt said.
“This is a long-overdue step in the right direction,” said Larry Gullett, the Jones County conservation director for 12 years before recently accepting the same post in Johnson County.
“Getting officers out on the river is huge in improving relationships among landowners, outfitters, livery services and recreationists,” said Gullett, who earned praise for his efforts to resolve conflicts on the popular stretch of the Maquoketa River from Monticello downstream to Pictured Rocks.
“It’s not just patrolling, looking for violations, but also providing assistance to people, giving people a number to call to help them resolve problems,” Gullett said.
When government agencies project the importance of protecting and preserving natural resources, “people pick up on that and their whole attitude changes over time,” he said.