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)

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."