Sand saves the day in Cedar Rapids - but what to do with it now?

Officials estimate up to 400,000 sandbags used to protect city from flooding

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Between 9 million and 20 million pounds of sand packed into bags and barriers protecting Cedar Rapids from flooding will stay put at least through Friday — when the Cedar River is predicted to go below major flood stage. Then city officials will need to decide what to do with it.

The sand started rolling in by truckload from local quarries on Thursday to be shoveled into sandbags, which usually hold between 30 to 50 pounds. Public Works Director Jen Winter estimated Tuesday there are between 300,000 and 400,000 sandbags in use to protect public infrastructure and businesses.

Martin Marietta/Linn County Sand in Ely provided most of the sand until Sunday morning, when it went under water, said Doug Martin, Linn County salesman for Wendling Quarries, which has several Corridor sites.

“We had to close our Highway 13 site at 8 p.m. Saturday,” Martin said. “But we stayed open 24 hours at Blairs Ferry. It was some long days.”

The sand was mostly fill sand, but Wendling ran out of that Sunday and had to go to the grittier concrete sand, Martin said. Washed limestone manufactured sand also was used.

The city of Cedar Rapids has a standing contract with Wendling, but Martin didn’t know the cost per ton the city paid for the sand. The city also purchased dirt from the quarry so contractors could make protective earthen berms, he said.

Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz on Tuesday upped his estimate of flood protection costs to $7 million.

Winter said officials won’t consider removing flood measures until the water flow goes below the major flood stage of 16 feet, now expected Friday.

“First, we’ll open roads up to open traffic flow,” Winter said.

The barriers filled with sand and lined up on public roadways to create a temporary flood wall will be emptied and removed so roads can be reopened, Winter said. Berms not blocking roads or footpaths could be left in place for a few weeks, she said.

The University of Iowa left barriers in place for up to a month after flood scares in 2013 and 2014, but that was during the summer when school was not in session. Fall floods are much rarer, and Cedar Rapids is unlikely to leave barriers in place because the city will need to prepare for snow removal, Winter noted.

So the big question will be what to do with tens of millions of pounds of sand.

“Most likely we’ll try to separate out the sand contaminated by floodwater,” Winter said. Sand touched by tainted water may need to be landfilled, but “we’ll try to salvage as much of the uncontaminated sand as we can.”

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources suggests contaminated sand be stockpiled for use in sanding slick streets or spreading on agricultural land.

“When sandbag material has been spread out on the ground, allowed to dry and exposed to sunlight, it poses only a small public health risk relative to the existence of disease organisms,” the DNR reported.

Filled sandbags can be used as fill material under buildings, roads or parking lots or as daily cover in a landfill, the DNR notes. The agency does not recommend sand used in flood control be repurposed in sandboxes, beaches or playgrounds.

Empty sandbags should not be reused.

Although the DNR suggests uncontaminated sand be returned to quarries for reuse, Martin said it would be very time consuming — that is, expensive — to reprocess fill sand. But the quarries are trying to come up with solutions.

“We’ve got people working on it,” he said.

See also: How to dispose of flood debris

For all of The Gazette's Flood 2016 coverage, please visit our flood coverage center.

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