Congress' 417-3 vote brings Cedar Rapids flood protection closer to reality

Measure now heads to conference committee; funding still needs to be approved

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Prospects for flood protection in Cedar Rapids took a crucial stride forward Wednesday night when the U.S. House of Representatives voted 417-3 to authorize Army Corps of Engineers-approved projects that include $67 million of federal support for a project on the east side of the Cedar River.

The House vote proved that Democrats and Republicans in Congress can agree, and the vote follows an 83-14 vote in the U.S. Senate in May on the same legislation, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013.

Now the House and Senate must meet in conference committee on each chamber’s version of the legislation, and then they must agree to fund the measure that emerges from the committee.

"We need to walk before we can run, and this is absolutely a critical first step," Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo, said of the vote to authorize the WRRDA bill, and the ultimate need to get the legislation into an appropriations bill.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, a former speaker of the Iowa House,  last night called the U.S. House vote and the earlier U.S. Senate vote remarkable in a time when Republicans and Democrats in Congress have not been able to agree on much of anything.

"As people know, there’s not been a lot of legislation passed in Washington because of partisan divide," the mayor said. "So for this bill to break through that partisan rancor that we’ve had in Washington, D.C., recently is a big success."

Corbett said the Cedar Rapids project is not an add-on earmark that both Democrats and Republicans have spoken out against in recent years. Instead, the Cedar Rapids project is among 23 specific projects approved by the Corps’ review process and spelled out in the House bill.

"In the past, Congress has authorized a lot of projects, a lot of earmarks, that never got funded," the mayor said. "Now they are not authorizing just to authorize. They know that these need to be funded.

"So it’s not just a feel-good for Congress. This is the big time, and it looks like we’re earning and gaining support from our U.S. representatives and senators."

Kira Ayish, Braley’s press secretary, last night said the lopsided, bipartisan, 417-3 vote came about because WRRDA is important to so many Congressional districts across the country. Congress hasn’t approved a WRRDA bill since 2007.

In a statement last night, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa City, said it was "far past time" for the House to approve a WRRDA bill.

Loebsack, whose Congressional District included Cedar Rapids at the time of the city’s 2008 flood through 2012, said he fought hard to secure earlier Congressional funding for the preconstruction engineering and design work in progress for east-side flood protection in Cedar Rapids. He said he also worked to get the construction piece of the Cedar Rapids project included in the WRRDA bill.

Both Braley and Loebsack said the WRRDA bill also includes much-needed support for locks and dams along the Mississippi River.

Mayor Corbett said that the city is pursuing state funding support for flood protection, even as it will continue to push to secure federal funding.

In the weeks ahead, he said the city anticipates submitting an application to the new Iowa Flood Mitigation Board, which can award communities up to $15 million a year for 20 years for their flood protection projects if a community provides some matching dollars. One of the requirements for state funding is that a community have a federally approved project, the mayor said, and he said that the progress of the WRRDA bill in Congress should help the city’s funding request with the state board.

Corbett said the city will seek state funds initially to help pay for pre-construction engineering, design and planning of west-side flood protection, which the federal government is not participating in, and to help provide required dollars to match federal funds for east-side protection.

The mayor said five years of "groundwork" at City Hall on flood protection is paying off.

"I never thought that it was never going to happen," he said about flood protection for the city. "My biggest disappointment is that it hasn’t happened earlier."

He said federal funding for east-side protection is apt to come in phases, and he said it may take up to a decade to have a comprehensive system in place on both sides of the river.

"Ten years from now, when we look back, if we hadn’t been persistent in the first years after the flood, it probably would have been easy for the project to die on the vine and never get anybody’s attention again," Corbett said.

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