Heading down the river

Published 7:25 pm Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Proposed whitewater park would be a first in Minnesota


With recent support from the Austin City Council, a largely citizen-driven effort is bringing the idea of a whitewater park to downtown Austin.

On March 20, the City Council approved $10,000 for a feasibility study — $5,000 from 2023 contingency and $5,000 from Parks, Recreation and Forestry’s Capital Improvement. Those funds will be added to privately raised funds, including $5,000 from Hormel Food Corps..

Email newsletter signup

If the feasibility study shows the park is possible and the project goes forward, it would be the first of its kind in Minnesota and only one of a handful regionally including parks in Charles City and Manchester, Iowa.

The view of the dam from above with Cedar River running underneath Fourth Avenue. If the whitewater park gets green-lit, this is where the stretch would begin and would stretch to Oakland Avenue South. Photo by Paul Hunter, of the Cedar River Watershed District

“It’s been a big and growing commitment to the point where we’re starting to divide and conquer now,” said Nathan Smit, who got the ball rolling with the idea during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s no longer us meeting and saying, ‘how do we even get this money for the feasibility study?’ How do we get the PR roll-out going?”

Smit said the idea came to him from the idea of finding something to do outdoors, which also led to the purchase of kayaks with his wife.

“At the same time Albert Lea was dredging its lake and so I was thinking how Albert Lea leverages its lakes,” Smit said. “They put the money into it. What do we have? Well, we have these rivers.”

However, these rivers also have dams, a familiar feature up and down the Cedar River. There was a question of how far one could go on the Cedar River without running into a dam.

One of those trips took him to Charles City where something caught his eye while looking at Google maps — the Charles City Whitewater in the heart of Charles City.

The park in Manchester, Iowa is an example of what Austin’s park might look like. Photo provided

“That’s when I discovered you can turn old dams into whitewater parks,” Smit said.

Smit followed this by arranging a meeting with Tim Ruzek of the Cedar River Watershed District and together they started working through the first parts of the idea, which initially focused on the dam near the Old Mill Restaurant.

However, because the dam is owned by Hormel, Smit said state agencies didn’t want to put money into it so focus turned to the Ramsey Mill Pond Dam constructed underneath Fourth Avenue SE.

A pitch meeting brought together City Council members Mike Postma and Jason Baskin, City Engineer Steven Lang, City Administrator Craig Clark and Ruzek.

As its envisioned now, the park would start at the pedestrian bridge over the Cedar River as it exits Mill Pond behind the YMCA at the Austin Community Recreation Center and go as far as Oakland Avenue East.

Throughout that run the river would be engineered to guide the river into rapids and runs that will open recreational opportunities for kayakers, tubers and more.

The plans also call for a proposed fish ladder that would accommodate fish migration up and down the river with a side benefit of promoting fishing opportunities along the stretch.

There is also talk of possibly expanding the project and lengthen it to also form a lazy run, but for now they are keeping it to the planned-for stretch.

“It’s a little something for everybody,” Smit said. “It’s a bigger vision of where it could go, but initially, right now, it’s from basically the end of Mill Pond all the way down to Oakland.”

Aside from the recreation aspects of the projects, organizers also foresee an economic impact as part of a list of benefits formulated by Parks, Recreation & Forestry Director Dave Merrill.

Those points include improved safety at that point of the river, ecological/environmental impact, flood mitigation, recreation, tourism/quality of life, economic/development impact and uniqueness/wow factors.

“Other places have built these and seen that investment,” Smit said. “You’re creating an economic draw. It’s something to do. Who would have thought you can bring whitewater to flat Mower County?”

Smit said he’s hoping to get the feasibility study back in around three to six months.

For more on the project, visit: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvpAusagP2o. You can also visit their new Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/austinwhitewateronthecedar.