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Ernst 'horrified' by another threat of C.R. flooding

Senator says she'll use it to stress need for flood protection project

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Eight years ago Joni Ernst was “boots on the ground” with the Iowa Army National Guard helping Cedar Rapids cope with historic flooding.

Seeing the “total devastation” as she flew over the city left a lasting impression.

“I am horrified this is happening again because it truly was such a devastating event for all of those families,” Ernst said Friday afternoon.

Now as a U.S. senator, Ernst plans to use the current flooding as another reason the Army Corps of Engineers should green-light Cedar Rapids’ planned $600 million flood protection project.

Ernst, who expects to be in Cedar Rapids Saturday, understands the frustration Cedar Rapids residents and business owners feel because the flood protection measures identified after the 2008 flooding have not been built. Congress has authorized $73 million in federal funds for the $600 million project, but the Corps has given the project a low priority based on a cost-to-benefit analysis and the money has not been appropriated.

Language Ernst added to the Water Resource Development Act “can’t force the Corps to fund it, but tells them to make it a priority.”

“I will go back and push even harder on this,” she said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, who worked with the Environment and Public Works Committee to address Cedar Rapids flood protection in both the 2014 and 2016 versions of WRDA, expressed similar frustration.

“Encouraging the Corps to expedite the Cedar Rapids project is a noteworthy step in the process,” Grassley said, “but funding decisions ultimately rest with the Corps and the legislative appropriations process.”

Also, Friday, Iowa U.S. Reps. Rod Blum and Dave Loebsack filed an amendment to WRDA similar to the language Ernst was able to add to the Senate version.

Ernst said she is using the current threat of flooding — coming just eight years after what was thought to be a once-in-a-lifetime flood — to gain support for the Cedar Rapids project.

“I’m hoping we can push that issue, but unfortunately I don’t think it will impact us that much” because of the Corps’ cost-to-benefit formula, she said. “Certainly that’s something we would ask them to consider.”

Based on that cost-to-benefit formula, “the Cedar Rapids project is a very, very low priority,” Ernst said.

She wants the Government Accounting Office to review that formula to look at how it was written and whether things have changed since it was written.

“Perhaps we can make this a higher priority when compared to other priorities,” she said.

Although neither Grassley nor Ernst argued for a return to congressional earmarks, they acknowledge a return to the practice of directing funding to projects in a member’s state or district might help Cedar Rapids.

“I have heard so many people bring that up and ask why we can’t direct that funding be given to Cedar Rapids,” Ernst said. “It’s because we don’t have earmarks, so when there are high priorities, we can’t direct funds. That is a discussion that perhaps needs to happen.”

In the past, Ernst said, the practice was “abused horribly.”

“But in an instance like this, when it is a matter of safety and protecting our citizens, those are the projects that need to have the priority of the federal government,” Ernst said.

For all of The Gazette's Election 2016 coverage, please visit our election coverage center.

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