September 29, 2021

Years ago, when the Greater Des Moines Water Trails and Greenways Master Plan was adopted and ICON was officially set in motion, the group of masterminds leading the charge knew there had to be a strategy behind the progression of the project. Between dangerous low heads dams, a robust business model and dozens of projected participating jurisdictions, the path forward needed to take into consideration the many factors that make ICON the unique initiative it’s now known to be.


Once complete, ICON will connect 80+ improvements across 150 miles of waterways in Central Iowa. But, in the early stages of the concept, it was a giant puzzle waiting to be solved. In what order should the Downtown sites be completed? How would ICON generate sustainable funding? What would be the most effective way to bring regional sites online? These were just a few of the questions that leaders from the Central Iowa Water Trails Incubator had to address.

In late 2019 when the Des Moines Area MPO was awarded, on behalf of what was then Central Iowa Water Trails, a $25 million Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD, Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation the planning and hypotheticals quickly developed into a real roadmap of how to proceed. Today, we’ll walk through the considerations made in planning for the development of ICON Water Trails and take a look at a few of the sites that are already successfully up and running.

Map showing trails around downtown Des Moines and the Des Moines River and Racoon River

Scott Avenue

With the end goals of safety and accessibility in mind, we knew that the Scott Avenue to Harriet Street stretch needed to be a priority to allow for a safe exit from the river. When funding through the BUILD Grant became available, the Scott Avenue site seemed like an suitable place to start, especially given that it included few amenities that could be used to attract private donors. For this reason, it became the perfect candidate for public funding. Once this portion of the project is complete, our sights are set on funding and developing Center Street, which will allow uninterrupted access from Birdland Marina to Harriet Street. The Center Street redevelopment will also unlock ICON’s fully sustaining business model.

Regional Sites

While the major Downtown Des Moines sites are certainly creating quite a buzz around ICON, it’s important to remember that this project is a system with more than a dozen participating jurisdictions and even more access points. Already, some of our partners are bringing their sites online and pioneering ICON’s vision across our region.

Map of rivers in central Iowa


The City of Johnston, for example, has already completed two of its three projects identified in the original feasibility study. With improvements finished at the 70th/86th Street access site as well as Lew Clarkson Park, Johnston is now in the initial stages of the Merle Hay access site in conjunction with the coordinated redevelopment of the Merle Hay corridor.

Additionally, Johnston took a leap last year and contracted a third-party outfitter to service the 70th/86th Street access site. Even with a season of low water levels, Quarry Springs Outfitter provided more than 600 rentals on Beaver Creek in the 2020 season alone.

Soon, paddlers will have the opportunity to put in as far upstream as the 70th/86th access site and make their way all the way to Birdland — one day even further with the completion of Center Street.

West Des Moines

Last year, West Des Moines finished its boathouse at Raccoon River Park, providing kayak, canoe and paddleboat rentals on Blue Heron Lake. The city also completed a portage path connecting the lake to Raccoon River. In the future, when the Fleur Drive dam is mitigated, users will be able to paddle from Raccoon River Park to Harriet Street and beyond.

Polk County

Adjacent to the Berwick Trail Bridge along the Chichaqua Valley Bike Trail, Mally’s Weh-Weh-Neh-Kee Park is a natural gem that boasts wooded soft trails, a picnic shelter, and a playground. Improvements at Mally’s included using natural channel design techniques to reestablish a stable waterway with an appropriate meander pattern and properly-sized channel that is reconnected to its floodplain. Using predominantly woody debris for armoring, the improvements enhanced fish habitats as well as provided multiple water quality benefits, supporting ICON’s goal of environmental conservation.

These regional improvements are prime examples of how small modifications can significantly enhance user experience, access to recreation and quality of life. At its core, ICON is about connection — connecting water, communities and people. As more and more improvements are implemented and sites activated, we invite you to connect with the adventure and wonder waiting in your own backyard.

About the Author: Maggie McClelland is the Director of ICON Water Trails. She has overseen the project since January of 2020, and offers more than six years of experience in managing projects, cultivating relationships and directing collaboration across multiple organizations.