Years later, still no Cedar Rapids flood protection
'We need money and we need it now,' City Council member says
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When the water finally receded after 2008’s landmark floods, Cedar Rapids officials said never again.
But “here we are again,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said earlier this week.
After eight years, why isn’t Iowa’s second-largest city further along in installing flood protection? What will it take for the federal government to deliver on the promise of $73 million for east side flood walls?
And how many more times can Cedar Rapids pull off the herculean efforts of the last week before people lose faith?
“It’s pretty obvious to us this could happen at any time,” said Cedar Rapids City Council member Ann Poe, her voice shaking as she started to cry. “We need money and we need it now.”
City officials estimate it will take about $600 million over 20 years to protect the city from future floods. This includes $269 million from the state — which already has been allocated — $110 million from Cedar Rapids and $73 million from the federal government. Another $150 million still is unfunded.
The federal money was authorized as part of the Water Resources Development Act, but that legislation includes numerous projects across the United States and no money has been allocated for Cedar Rapids.
Members of Iowa’s congressional delegation, including several up for re-election Nov. 8, have been eager to say what they’ve been doing to try to get this funding.
“With leadership and direction from Sen. Grassley, language was included in the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA), which overwhelmingly passed the Senate, directing the Corps of Engineers to expedite the completion of four authorized flood control projects, including the Cedar Rapids project,” said Jill Gerber, a spokeswoman for Sen. Chuck Grassley.
Iowa Reps. Dave Loebsack, Rod Blum and David Young also have signed onto an amendment that calls for the Cedar Rapids project to be accelerated.
Grassley and Sen. Joni Ernst sent a letter to Corps officials Tuesday decrying a decades-old cost-benefit formula that works against Cedar Rapids because property values are lower here than other places.
“It is no longer sufficient to say your hands are tied and that nothing short of a Congressional earmark can help communities like Cedar Rapids that have lower property values,” the letter states. “Due to your refusal to budget for this project, Cedar Rapids is now facing another major flood event without the needed levee improvements.”
A 2011 ban on congressional earmarks — which require approved funds be spent on specific projects — has made it tough for members of Congress to push too hard for projects back home, said Cary Covington, associate political science professor at the University of Iowa.
“Funding is being prioritized against other needs,” he said. “It’s not something on which Congress has a lot of influence.”
Senators and representatives can draw attention to budget requests, “but you won’t see members of Congress pulling strings to say ‘my project should get funded’,” Covington said.
Getting long-term federal funding for any project is challenging because of partisan bickering in Congress, he said.
Just this week, Senate Democrats blocked a Republican bill to fund the government and fight the Zika virus because the plan didn’t include money to help Flint, Mich., with lead contamination, CNN reported. A compromise Wednesday averted a government shut down, but the deal funds the government only through December.
“It’s becoming increasingly common to be very late (with budget agreements) and rely on continuing resolutions,” Covington said. “If it (the Cedar Rapids project) gets held up in gridlock, you have to wait.”
Without federal money or state money, which requires a federal match, Cedar Rapids is, so far, going it alone.
Residents twice defeated local-option sales tax measures to pay for flood protection, so projects have been piecemeal.
The city’s $8 million McGrath Amphitheatre doubles as a section of flood wall and the new CRST building has a $4 million chunk of levee in front. The city will start work next month on a $10 million, half-mile earthen berm and pump station near the old Sinclair meatpacking plant.
Poe said the city must prove to residents and business owners who moved back near the river after 2008 they will be protected.
“We’ve had this community step up and invest in the core of the community,” she said. “We’re asking our federal partners to step up.”
For all of The Gazette's Flood 2016 coverage, please visit our flood coverage center.