CEDAR RAPIDS — Dale Todd has been pushing for 20 years to turn the 78-acre Cedar Lake in the gritty industrial area just north of downtown into a paradise.
Now Todd, who advocated for Cedar Lake in his four years on the City Council from 1998 through 2001, has helped to create Friends of Cedar Lake to spark new interest in what he said remains poised to become a recreational jewel for the city and its downtown.
The Friends conceptual plan is ambitious — boat landings, boardwalks, fishing piers, a park shelter, a pedestrian crossing over the Cedar River, a paved access under Interstate 380 to Coe College — as the hurdles to accomplishing some of it remain formidable.
"Let’s at least try to dream about what it could be," Todd said. "This shouldn’t have to be a project that we have to fight to make happen."
Alliant Energy owns the lake, the water from which the utility used to operate its now-closed, coal-fired utility plant next door. At the same time, the city holds a 99-year lease with Alliant, a lease signed in 1982 that dictates that the city can use the lake property for benign recreational activities as long as the city doesn’t disturb the lake bottom.
In short, Cedar Lake is not at the top of either Alliant’s priority list nor the city’s, said both Doug Kopp, Alliant’s newly named president of its Iowa and Minnesota operations, and Mayor Ron Corbett.
The central impediment to moving up a priority list is the lake’s bottom. It has been a repository of chlordane, a cancer-causing insecticide used in residential areas and carried into the lake from storm runoff, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were widely used in insulators and in coolant fluids in transformers, capacitors and electric motors.
Those who fish in Cedar Lake today are asked to limit to one meal a week the bottom-feeding fish they catch because of levels of PCBs, said Paul Sleeper, a fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. That could change after next round of testing of the lake later this year, he added.
Todd said improvements to Cedar Lake can’t continue to be put off by those "paralyzed by the fear" of what remains unknown about the lake’s bottom. A first task, said Felicia Wyrick, who heads up the Friends of Cedar Lake’s public outreach program, is to remove the public perception that there is something wrong with Cedar Lake and that it can’t be used.
Todd and Wyrick said the moment is perfect to take up the Cedar Lake project anew for two reasons:
The city’s plan for flood protection, though, is throwing a new wrench into the Friends’s plans for Cedar Lake.
The city’s "preferred" flood protection plan, which was approved by the City Council after much cost and study in the fall of 2008, called for protection on the east side of the river to extend a mile and half north of the PepsiCo Quaker plant. The protection was to safeguard Cedar Lake as well as businesses and industries along Shaver Road NE and J Avenue NE and low-lying areas around Coe College.
However, Corbett and other city officials said the city may set aside the plan to go north of Quaker with flood protection and instead adopt the Army Corps of Engineers’ design, which protects the Quaker and Cargill plants but stops there.
Rob Davis, the city’s engineering operations manager, said the city estimates that it could cost an additional $50 million to build the protection above Quaker as called for in the city’s preferred plan, though he said the city had not rejected that part of the plan as of now.
Instead, that protection, if built, will come among the latter phases of the protection system’s construction, Davis said.
The Friends of Cedar Lake’s Todd said flood protection for Cedar Lake is necessary to prevent sedimentation from river flooding to fill in the lake. The flood protection system also would provide a way to incorporate trails and other natural spaces connecting the lake and the river, he said.
In this regard, Alliant’s Kopp and Todd agreed. Alliant, too, wants to see the city’s east-side flood protection extend north of Quaker to protect Alliant’s operations center on Shaver Road, which was flooded in the city’s 2008 flood, Kopp said.
The city’s Davis said "localized ring levees" could protect individual properties such as Alliant’s, he said.
In recent days, Todd and Wyrick met with Alliant officials, Corbett and other city officials about Cedar Lake, and Wyrick said they now realize that Cedar Lake is a "low priority" for them.
"Yes, we understand you have other priorities," Wyrick said of the meeting with Alliant and the city. "But just because our effort doesn’t fit into your timeline doesn’t diminish our desire and a growing contingency within community’s desire to see this happen."
Alliant’s Kopp said Alliant is in the process of preparing its closed Sixth Street Generating Station for demolition, which is expected to start later this year and could take six to 12 months. Retiring the plant also will require the removal of ash ponds next to the plant or collapsing them in place and covering them over.
Some of the ash material is outside the ponds, he said, and is on ground near the support structures to Interstate 380 that is now owned by the Iowa Department of Transportation.
"So we’re trying to figure out, how do we bring all these pieces (together) and close that out in a way that meets everybody’s needs?" Kopp said. "So it’s not exactly been an easy task."
At the same time, he said Alliant is closing other less-efficient power plants and installing expensive air quality equipment at other plants.
As a result, "Cedar Lake is a little down the road for us," Kopp said. "It’s not a public safety issue there, and right now, we have the lease (with the city) for recreation. So it’s not a top-tier priority for us to just be blunt about it."
Sven Leff, the city’s parks and recreation director, said the Friends of Cedar Lake have some "neat ideas," and he said some that call for making the area around the lake more attractive are apt to happen sooner than ideas they have for the lake itself.
Kayakers and canoeists can put their boats in the water, but motorized boats are not permitted by the city’s lease with Alliant.
However, the Friends’s plan calls for the construction of fishing piers out into the lake and a boardwalk that cuts across one edge of it. Such work would require posts anchored into the lake’s bottom, which would disturb the lake bottom and so is not allowed in the city’s lease with Alliant, Leff said.
But Cedar Lake, he said, is not without its allure even now. In the past 10 years, the Rotary Clubs in the Cedar Rapids area spent some $200,000 to beautify around the lake, adding observation areas and benches and other amenities. The city also established a trail head at the lake, which the city’s heavily used Cedar River Trail passes by and loops around.
Being on the trail at the lake provides a unique vantage point of Quaker Co. and the downtown, Leff said.
"I’d give it a B, a B minus," Leff said of Cedar Lake. "There’s room for improvement. … It’s easy to dream bigger."
Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson, who said he is a supporter of the Friends of Cedar Lake, noted that Cedar Rapids's downtown is flanked on one side by the new Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa and may very well see the $150 million Cedar Crossing Casino project if a state license is granted on the downtown’s opposite flank.
However, the downtown’s two other flanks feature the Mount Trashmore landfill and Cedar Lake. The landfill is closed, and the Solid Waste Agency, where Oleson is board chairman, is working on plans to turn the landfill from a liability into a recreational asset for hiking and other appropriate uses.
"Can you say the same thing about Cedar Lake?" he said. "Do you or do you not tackle that?"
Oleson said city and metro area leaders talk at length about economic development, and he said the transformation of the landfill and lake is "hugely valuable" to attract businesses, employees and families to the metro area and Linn County.
The Friends’s Wyrick said the group understands that the Cedar Lake transformation will come in phases, but the lake needs more than a "face-lift," she said.
"Why half-bake it? … I don’t think that’s how our community goes about things," she said.
Todd said there are many examples around the country of decommissioned power plants that have been reused for other purposes or demolished with the area around them transformed into something fresh."All of a sudden these places turn from places that people avoid, don’t want to talk about and are embarrassed about, into these destination places," Todd said. "And there’s no reason that can’t happen to Cedar Lake."