With the growth in popularity in paddling and floating Iowa's rivers and streams, I have noticed a large amount of confusion in the two different classifications of flowing rivers or streams. Even though they share a different title along with a few different regulations, they share one important classification, navigable.
The two different classifications are meandering and non-meandering streams. From 1836 to 1858 the state of Iowa was officially surveyed. The workers on these surveying crews traveled the state by foot or horseback. Most surveying crews walked due to the lack of horses. One of the obstacles they had to deal with was crossing some of Iowa's rivers and streams. In dealing with these obstacles they had to classify the different types of flowing water they crossed.
When the surveyors reached the bank of a river or stream, if they were able to cross the stream without walking up and down the shoreline to find a shallow place to cross, these streams were called non-meandering streams. So therefore they did not have to meander up and down the stream bank to cross. In the state of Iowa most of the rivers or streams are classified as non-meandering streams.
For the land surveyors the meandering streams, or rivers of Iowa caused them a lot of extra time and work to get across. The meandering rivers were larger and deeper in makeup. When the surveyors would have these rivers dissect their path, they would often have to travel long distances up or down stream to find an area of the river that they were able to cross. In some cases it was not possible without the aid of a boat or raft. That is where the term meandering river comes from.
In Iowa there is different legislation governing the use of these streams. On rivers classified as meandering, the river users have clear foot access rights to the channel bottom and stream banks up to the ordinary high water mark. But in Iowa there are very few meandering rivers, the largest two being our bordering rivers of the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers. The only interior river that has the meandering classification the entire way is the Des Moines River. Otherwise there are few small stretches of other rivers that have the meandering classification. These stretches are located on the Iowa DNR website.
The non-meandering streams or rivers make up most of Iowa's streams and rivers. For instance the Iowa River in Hardin and Marshall Counties is classified as a non-meandering river. So therefore by definition, the Iowa River is classified as a navigable river where the water is considered public. By Iowa law the public is allowed to paddle or navigate on any stream with enough flow to support a small watercraft. By definition the Black Hawk Creek in Grundy County has the same classification as the Iowa or Boone Rivers that are located in Central Iowa. The main difference between meandered and non-meandered streams is that the stream users have only the right to float on the water surface or wade on the stream bottom. The stream bed and the banks are private property.
In conclusion, by Iowa law any stream with enough flowing water to carry a small watercraft is considered navigable. To be honest when researching for this article I was shocked that Iowa had so few meandered rivers. Pretty much all of the rivers around here are classified as non-meandered streams. I know personally I have had lots of memories canoeing down the Iowa and West Fork Rivers near Grundy County and I hope that others are fortunate enough to make some memories too. Just remember to respect everyone's property and to treat all of our natural resources with respect.