Two recommendations for controversial Iowa City levee emerge in report

Proposals based on amount of desired protection for Taft Speedway neighborhood

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IOWA CITY – A consulting firm that studied a controversial levee proposal in Iowa City has come back with two recommendations for the city to consider based on how much protection is desired.

Neither option calls for not building a flood-protection system, something opponents of the project have sought.

Instead, a levee, floodwall or both, standing up to 16 feet high, would be built on Taft Speedway Street along the Iowa River in north Iowa City if the recommendations from HDR Engineering Inc. are followed.

The Omaha, Neb., firm and the city released a draft of the study this week. The 400-page report is being reviewed by city staffers and will be finalized later this month, and then it will go to the City Council. The council will have to decide whether to move forward with the project. (Click here to see the report.)

The levee became a priority for city officials soon after the 2008 flood swamped the neighborhoods in the area. The city even received an $8 million grant from the federal government for a project initially estimated to cost $10 million.

The intent was to protect the area to the north of Taft Speedway, including a 92-unit condominium complex. The condos were not eligible for buyouts following the flood, while the 13 properties on Taft Speedway were.

Only four Taft Speedway owners took buyouts, though, and if the levee is built, the nine remaining homes would be left between the levee and the river. Those residents have disputed that they had all the information needed to make a timely decision on whether to rebuild or take a buyout, although some wanted to keep their riverfront homes no matter what.

They and some homeowners from the flood-prone Parkview Terrace neighborhood, just upstream of Taft Speedway, have opposed the levee.

Last year the government ordered further study of how a structure would affect the homes on Taft Speedway and in Parkview Terrace.

The report says eight alternatives were considered. The two that are recommended are:

An earthen levee primarily along Taft Speedway between No Name Road and Dubuque Street. The levee would be up to 8.5 feet high and would provide the best protection against a 100-year flood, according to the report. This option would cost $8.1 million.

The other would be combination of a levee and a floodwall at a cost of $13.1 million. The wall would be up to 14 feet tall and the levee 16 feet. The report concludes this is the best option to protect against a 500-year flood.

Floodwaters approached 100-year levels in 1993 and 500-year levels in 2008.

The report also found that both options would have minimal impact on river levels, which has been a concern of people upstream.

In the past, city officials have spoken about protecting the most people possible when arguing for the levee. Property values also have been part of the discussion. (Story continues below maps)

The report states that the 92 units in the Idyllwild condominium complex that would be protected by a levee and/or floodwall have an assessed value of nearly $10.5 million and generate about $170,000 a year in taxes.

The nine homes on Taft Speedway have an assessed value of nearly $1.7 million, according to records from the Iowa City Assessor’s Office.

Sally Cline, president of the Idyllwild homeowners’ association, said she understands arguments made about money and the aesthetics of a levee or floodwall, but owners there want protection against flooding.

“We don’t want to pit neighbor versus neighbor, but there are 92 of us, and we want to see some flood protection,” she said.

In a letter to the City Council last month, Taft Speedway resident Joel Wilcox said tax revenue does not give Idyllwild a stronger claim.

“Government ought not to be viewed as a commodity in which the wealth of its citizens, either individually [or] as a group, buys a better quality of protection, or where one neighborhood can be allowed to press its interests, like a predator, against another,” he wrote.

Rick Fosse, Iowa City’s public works director, said the report looks at the matter from an engineering perspective. He said council members will also consider city policies and other issues in making their decision.

Fosse did not want to weigh in on the technical contents of the report or say whether he agrees with its recommendations because it is a draft report and is not yet finalized. He said he does not expect the main points of the report to change much, though.

The Gazette and at least one resident requested copies of the report last month under Iowa’s open-records law. The city denied those, saying that the unfinished document was not a public record and the city does not release draft reports.

The resident, Mary Murphy, who lives in Parkview Terrace and is a critic of the levee, then reminded city officials that its consultant promised at a June forum that the draft report would be released and the public would be able to comment on it.

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