Flood protection in Cedar Rapids remains top priority

Work goes on to bring it to reality

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The flood gauge just upstream from the Eighth Avenue bridge here has the depth of the Cedar River these days at less than three feet.

The river’s low flow and a distance of four and a half years from the city’s historic 2008 flood — when the river climbed to 31.12 feet — conspire to blur the need to build the city’s proposed $375 million flood protection system, acknowledges Mayor Ron Corbett.

I’s only natural, said the mayor. Finding public dollars to help in the aftermath of a flood or other natural disaster, he said, is always easier than finding those dollars to protect against what the future might hold.

“Once the disaster is cleaned up, then you’re looking for long-term construction dollars, and you’re fighting with all the other aspects of government spending,” Corbett said. “The emotional piece has been lost.”

Lost emotion, the mayor insists, doesn’t mean that flood protection doesn’t remain at the top of the City Hall agenda. It’s just that the city has refined its message to emphasize the need to protect the hundreds of millions of federal, state, local and private dollars that have gone into rebuilding the city.

“We need to protect those assets. It’s a dollars-and-cents argument,” the mayor said.

Amphitheater progress

The most visible sign that the work of flood protection is inching ahead is the city’s towering outdoor riverfront amphitheater, now under construction on the west bank of the river across from downtown. This $8 million entertainment venue, which doubles as a flood levee, is a reminder of just how high floodwaters climbed in 2008. In recent weeks, as part of the amphitheater project, a set of concrete pillars have gone up, providing a first look at what a flood wall could look like elsewhere in the city’s flood-protection system.

For his part, Corbett said he is reserving judgment about the aesthetics of the wall until the work is complete, though Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer, says the pillars will come with landscaping and other enhancements to make them look more appealing than they might look now.

The section of wall, Elgin adds, is one of many examples of a removable flood wall, which are designed so removable panels can be inserted between the pillars during the approach of a flood. Removable walls are in the city plan for much of downtown.

At first glance, 2012 would seem to have been a bad year for the city’s flood protection plans. After all, local voters in March — for a second time — defeated a measure that would have extended the city’s existing 1 percent, local-option sales tax to provide local dollars to help pay for flood protection.

Corbett, though, says the tax defeat didn’t change what he says is the widely held view in Cedar Rapids that flooding will recur and flood protection will be built.

Flood fund

The tax defeat aside, 2012 brought what Corbett calls a “significant” victory for Cedar Rapids flood protection when the Iowa Legislature created a new state flood protection fund based on an idea that Corbett and the city of Cedar Rapids came up with and spent two years pushing. The new law will direct a portion of the incremental increase in the state sales tax into a fund, which cities can make application to if they have local matching funds.

John Benson, legislative liaison at the office of Iowa Homeland Security & Emergency Management, reports that Gov. Terry Branstad will make appointments to the oversight board of the fund after the Legislature begins its session in January. Homeland Security, meanwhile, is assembling possible rules that the new oversight board might use to operate the program once it is up and running, Benson says.

Corbett says he has submitted the names of John Bloomhall, president/CEO of Diamond V Mills Inc., and Nancy Kasparek, president of U.S. Bank in Cedar Rapids, for consideration as members to the new board.

The city, he adds, will seek money from the state fund to provide the city’s match of federal dollars for the construction of east-side flood protection and to provide funds for preconstruction design and engineering dollars of west-side flood protection.

For those who have forgotten, the Army Corps of Engineers has secured approval to build a flood protection system on the city’s east side, the cost of which has been put at $104 million. About $12 million of the total cost, which no doubt will go up for inflation, is for preconstruction design and engineering, which is now under way.

The city already has paid its 25 percent share of the design and engineering phase, though Congress to date has only provided $3 million of the $9 million in federal funds for the work.

The actual construction of the Corps’ east-side flood protection system will require 35 percent of the cost to be covered by non-federal dollars, whether it comes from city, state or private dollars.

Corbett notes that the City Council in 2012 agreed to use $15 million in revenue from the fifth and last year of the city’s existing local-option sales tax largely to match federal and state funds for flood protection.

Chris Haring, the Corps of Engineers’ project manager for the Cedar Rapids east-side flood protection system, reports that the preconstruction work on the Cedar Rapids project continues, thanks, in part, to the fact that the city of Cedar Rapids agreed to provide its $3 million share of the $12 million cost of the work while the Corps waits for Congress to fund the last $6 million of it.

Haring, who works out of the Corps’ Rock Island District Office, says the preconstruction design work for the Cedar Rapids project is the top priority among projects at the district office.

Haring suggests that the fresh and huge disaster caused by Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast can motivate Congress to provide funds for disaster infrastructure and flood-risk management when it might not otherwise do.

“I don’t look at it as a negative,” he says of Sandy.

‘Preferred’ plan

One of the city’s central focuses in the first months after the June 2008 flood was to bring in consultants to help the city design a “preferred” flood protection system to protect both sides of the city from a repeat of 2008.

The city’s Elgin calls the city’s preferred plan a Chevy and not a Cadillac, a plan that provides protection but not extravagances.

With four years now passed since the City Council adopted the preferred plan, Elgin reports that the city now has asked one of the plan’s consultants, Stanley Consultants of Muscatine, to calculate the costs of a less-ambitious flood protection system for the west side of the city.

In the preferred plan, which protects to the elevation of the 2012 flood, the cost of west-side protection now is thought to be between $150 million and $155 million because about $30 million already has been spent to buy out and demolish flood-damaged properties in the way of a flood-protection system.

Stanley Consultants has put the price tag at about $125 million to protect the west side to the 100-year flood level and $140 million to build a foundation sturdy enough to provide 100-year flood protection and to allow the protection to be enhanced to the 2008 flood level in the future. In the end, Stanley has advised that it doesn’t cost that much more to go from 100-year protection to the preferred plan’s 2008 level of protection once the foundation for the latter is in place, Elgin says.

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