Long slog to Cedar Rapids flood protection

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It’s been roughly a year since flood protection slid from the hot front burner of local debate to the back burner, where it now simmers, quietly, in a bureaucratic braise. Not withstanding an occasional memory-jogging ice jam.

In March 2012, voters shot down a second attempt to extend the local-option sales tax to pay for protection on both sides of the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids’ core. The measure’s loudest opponents, We Can Do Better CR, never actually did. State lawmakers approved a new program that could provide some state dollars, but the board tasked with handing out the bucks hasn’t met yet.

We still have an east-side flood protection project recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers and signed off on by the Corps’ chief of engineers. Its cost is now pegged at $120 million, with the feds potentially covering $78 million. There is, as of now, no Corps-approved project for the west side. And, with the 2008 flood’s fifth anniversary approaching in June, no money has been approved to construct anything.

That doesn’t mean nothing is happening.

Chris Haring, project manager of the Corps’’ east-bank effort, says the city’s decision to fork over its share of planning dollars up front means that east-side planning can continue through September. And it’s possible that more money could be made available through the continuing resolution approved this past week by Congress to keep the federal government running. Last year, a continuing resolution netted $450,000 for the project.

And this past week, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously moved the Water Resources Development Act of 2013 to the full Senate, where it could be debates as early as April. The bill, or WRDA as it’s known in wonk-glish, is the massive measure passed every five years or so that pays for water-related public works projects, including flood control systems.

In previous years, the bill held a pile of earmarks, or local projects tacked on by senators. This time, the bill authorizes all projects with a completed chief of engineers report that have been referred to Congress. There are 18 such projects, and it appears that Cedar Rapids’ east-side protection project is among them. It’s up to the Secretary of the Army to decide which of those projects gets funded and when. (I requested a list of the 18 projects but didn't get it yet. I did find this list of 10 projects.)

“Authorization is a huge step forward,” Haring said. City officials concur.

But being in line is a far cry from being funded. I watched the Senate committee’s vote on WRDA via the interwebs. The bill they approved may be lacking the earmarked pork of yesteryear, but that doesn’t mean the carving knives aren’t out.

The committees’ chair, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, mentioned the needs of the Sacramento Basin. Her Republican counterpart, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, clearly has home state needs. A senator from Maryland mentioned the Chesapeake Bay. A Mississippi senator pointed to port dredging at Gulfport. An Oregan senator also talked of ports, while another detailed the needs of the upper Missouri River Basin.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus lamented, at length, an invasion of zebra mussels at Flathead Lake. And don’t forget the flood control needs of Nebraska.

So earmarks are gone, but sharp elbows remain. And what will the House pass? Who knows?

One significant obstacle for Cedar Rapids is its project’s low “benefit-cost ratio,” or BCR. Man, if we could just construct levees out of federal acronyms, we’d have it made.

Basically, the calculated monetary benefits of a project over its 50-year life have to exceed, or at least equal, the federal investment. East-side protection has a BCR of 1.2 to 1, or just barely more than break even. The westside scored around 0.5, which is why it wasn’t approved. Property values figure in, but flood risk looms even larger. Based on historical hydrological records, the 2008 flood, according to the corps’ analysis, “was a very rare event.”

Looking at the list of other Corps-approved projects, you’ll find BCRs of 6 to 1, 3.7 to 1, 13.2 to 1 and so on. These are projects with more federal benefit than Cedar Rapids. That could push us toward the back of the line.

It is possible, Haring said, that Cedar Rapids BCR could improve, on both sides of the river. New development on the west side, in Kingston Village, for example, could someday alter the Corps calculations. So could a casino. East-side development could also boost its project benefit ratio.

Of course, another severe flood would recalibrate our risk and alter the ratio. Let’s not go there.

Regardless of how this unfolds, it’s looking like a long slog. City leaders who used to talk about protection in five to seven years are now talking about a “decade” publicly, while worrying about “decades” privately. Mayor Ron Corbett compares it to Don Canney’s long effort to improve and expand The Eastern Iowa Airport. Sort of a “One Piece at a Time” approach.

If only we could persuade Mother Nature to hold off on the mayhem until we get those pieces assembled.

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