The prominent community leaders who are steering work on the proposed $117 million water trails project in Central Iowa have raised the $5 million needed to start engineering and early permit work on three downtown Des Moines whitewater sites.

The removal of the three low-head dams on the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers will lead to the installation of whitewater areas catering to kayakers of varying skill levels. The flashiest will be at the Center Street Dam near the Women of Achievement Bridge and the Lauridsen Skatepark now under construction. Reworking that area alone is a $35 million proposition. 

The Center Street dam currently is a hazard that has killed people who got caught in the churning waters below it. Improving safety was the initial goal of what has turned into a broad effort to improve outdoor recreation in part to help attract and retain workers in Central Iowa, where low unemployment has led to a tight labor market. 

Hannah Inman, CEO of the nonprofit Great Outdoors Foundation, which is leading the fundraising effort, said the $5 million milestone shows the strong support for the work, as do the lists of leaders who are on the various committees. Donations have been large and small, with sources ranging from corporations to individuals. 

Now, the detailed work begins. 

“The engineering studies showed us what was feasible and did up to 1% of design, and we knew what was possible and the estimate of what it would cost,” Inman said in an interview. “Now we are going in and actually doing the design plans.”

At the same time, the Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator, as the overall group is called now, is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to make sure permit requirements are met. 

“We are starting the soil borings, the hydraulic modeling, all of that,” Inman said. “We have had extensive meetings with the Corps, and they were invited and were a part of the engineering study.” The permitting work could take as long as 18 months. 

Backers have said it could be as long as a decade before the downtown work is done.

Highlights would include a surfable dam in the Raccoon River near Fleur Drive, adjustable wave action at the Center Street dam site in the Des Moines River and a more tranuil scene at Scott Street south of downtown.

ISG worked on the regional projects, and McLaughlin Whitewater, with RDG Planning & Design and HDR, worked on the downtown segments.

An earlier economic impact study using projections by Merrick & Co. found that the downtown projects would cost $106 million upfront, but by year five would bring an annual economic boost of $26 million to $32 million.

The projects are expected to create 151 full-time-equivalent jobs the first year, with $8.3 million in wages. Consultants expect those to grow to 202 full-time jobs and $12.6 million in payroll by the fifth year of operation. At that same time, related businesses could be paying $1.7 million a year in sales, hotel/motel and excise taxes.

The Great Outdoors Foundation will focus on water trails at its annual dinner from 6 to 11 p.m. Nov. 15 at Curate in downtown Des Moines. More information