Iowa Flood Center on Legislature's chopping block
Center is 'eyes and ears' for local officials coping with rising waters
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Eastern Iowa officials condemned a proposal unveiled Tuesday to eliminate state funding for the Iowa Flood Center, an operation based at the University of Iowa that provides real-time flood mapping and helps communities see if they’ll be affected by rising waters.
“Before the floods of 2008, it was hard to communicate the risk to the public in a form they can understand,” said Johnson County Emergency Manager Dave Wilson. “Pulling the funding for that project would be shortsighted. I’m kind of shocked they are even considering it.”
The Iowa Flood Center was created by the Legislature in 2009 — one year after devastating floods hit Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other Eastern Iowa communities.
The center’s interactive tool provides weather conditions, inundation maps and stream sensor data. A flood risk calculator and maps show how far and where a river would flow based on the flood stage.
Cutting the $1.5 million the state provides the center annually would “effectively eliminate” the program and jeopardize federal money, according to an email from Larry Weber, director of UI’s IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering, and Witold Krajewski, the flood center director.
Weber, speaking Tuesday in Des Moines, said he appreciated the budget challenges facing legislators this year but noted the Iowa Flood Center leveraged $136 million in federal funds and played a critical role in helping deal with the aftermath of the 2008 flood and meeting challenges posed by last year’s rising waters.
“We think that we had a tremendous impact,” said Weber. He also noted the center is in the first year of a $96 million five-year federal Housing and Urban Department project studying flood mitigation and water quality improvements.
Local officials say the center indeed has had an impact on Iowans.
“In 2013 and 2014 when we had flooding, people would come in here and ask about their property,” said Melissa Clow, project manager for Iowa City’s $40 million Gateway Project, which will raise Dubuque Street by 10 feet to avoid flooding.
The Iowa Flood Information System, an online tool that supports flood alerts and flood forecasts, “is one of the first tools I pull up,” she said. “It’s very user-friendly.”
Cedar Rapids officials also used the system when preparing for last September’s 21.9-foot crest of the Cedar River, which the city fended off with temporary barriers and other efforts.
While the National Weather Service has one gauge in Cedar Rapids, the flood center has gauges on large and small waterways across Iowa, said Sandy Pumphrey, a project engineer for Cedar Rapids. The flood center’s inundation maps update information more regularly than federal maps, he said.
“The Iowa Flood Center has much more detailed information that we’re able to see in real time,” Pumphrey said. “It’s our eyes and ears.”
Justin Koller, the city’s sewer operations manager, said being able to share accurate information quickly with residents and business owners is vital in an emergency situation.
U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, speaking Tuesday in North Liberty, said closing the Iowa Flood Center makes no sense. In fact, the Democrat from Iowa City proposed in June creating a national flood center — perhaps based in Iowa City.
“We’ve got to continue to invest resources, not only in the Iowa Flood Center but nationally as well,” Loebsack said.
State Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, who is on the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s Flood Mitigation Board, said he would work to keep the flood center open.
“We have repeatedly witnessed the devastating impact that floods have on our Iowa communities and it’s our responsibility as state lawmakers to work with local communities to minimize and mitigate flooding and the resulting damage to life and property,” he said.
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Madison Arnold and Rod Boshart of The Gazette contributed.