Government

News Track: Cedar Rapids joins another Cedar watershed authority

'A lot of work to do, but this is a step in the right direction'

Then-Gov. Terry Branstad on April 27, 2016, praises the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, which is a collaboration between the city of Cedar Rapids, upstream conservation groups and local farmers working together to reduce nitrate levels in the Cedar River and improve soil health within the Middle Cedar watershed. At the event in Dysart, he heard from farmers and members of several area watershed conservation initiatives, as well as representatives from the city. Cedar Rapids joined the Middle Cedar Watershed management authority in 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Then-Gov. Terry Branstad on April 27, 2016, praises the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, which is a collaboration between the city of Cedar Rapids, upstream conservation groups and local farmers working together to reduce nitrate levels in the Cedar River and improve soil health within the Middle Cedar watershed. At the event in Dysart, he heard from farmers and members of several area watershed conservation initiatives, as well as representatives from the city. Cedar Rapids joined the Middle Cedar Watershed management authority in 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Background

The Iowa Legislature passed a law in 2010 allowing the creation of watershed management authorities so different entities such as cities, counties and conservation districts could jointly manage shared watersheds.

Water quality improvements and flood mitigation are the primary goals of such partnerships. But other benefits could include leveraging resources for funding and technical expertise.

Cedar Rapids joined the Middle Cedar Watershed in 2016 with a focus on mitigating flooding and reducing nutrients in the water. The partnership is made up largely of cities, counties and conservation districts representing a 2,417-square-mile portion of the Cedar River watershed. Cedar Rapids has a vice chair position in the partnership.

What’s happened since

Last month, the Cedar Rapids City Council voted to join another watershed partnership for the Cedar River, the Lower Cedar Watershed.

“It would be the first continuous river in Iowa” to be covered by watershed management authorities, Cara Matteson, Cedar Rapids stormwater coordinator, said in encouraging participation. “It would be a unique experience for us to be part of that.”

All told, 25 member entities are in the Upper Cedar Watershed authority, which formed in 2012, and 26 are in the Middle Cedar authority. Each group meets quarterly.

There are 32 potential entities, including 25 cities and seven counties, in the Lower Cedar authority, which still is forming, she said. Each member would have one vote, and agreeing to join the authority requires no financial commitment nor a requirement to stay in perpetuity, she said.

But questions remain about the impact such authorities can have.

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A greater role for one key stakeholder — the Iowa Farm Bureau — could help progress in improving the watershed, said Ralph Russell, a member of the Cedar Rapids City Council.

“To me in order to get something done, we have to have them at the table as well,” he said.

City Council member Justin Shields lamented the lack of funding as a limiting factor.

“Most communities and counties don’t have that kind of money sitting around,” Shields said. “Without strong state support, I don’t think we will do a whole lot but make a lot of noise and not do anything.”

Matteson noted the Middle Cedar partnership secured $11.2 million through the Iowa Flood Center and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Disaster Reliance Grant, but acknowledged money doesn’t stretch far.

“Every little bit helps,” she said.

Of the award, $8.5 million is going to on-the-ground practices and the remainder to coordination, planning, data collection and assessment. Monitoring should help prove the efforts are having an impact, she said.

“Baby steps,” Matteson said. “We have a lot of coverage in Iowa and a lot of work to do, but this is a step in the right direction.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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