Making the case for Cedar Rapids flood wall funding

HESCO flood barriers filled with sand line the East bank of the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
HESCO flood barriers filled with sand line the East bank of the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

If only Cedar Rapids could hold back floodwater with “empathy.”

Shared feelings can’t fill sandbags. But that’s mostly what our congressional delegation got Monday from Trump administration budget chief Mick Mulvaney. As for Cedar Rapids’ long-awaited $73 million appropriation for its east-bank flood walls and levees, it’s still wait and see, and then wait some more.

U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley and U.S. Rep. Rod Blum credited Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman, with understanding how frustrating the wait can be. He knows about the project and gets its importance. He’s “engaged” and empathetic they said. But he made no budgetary promises.

Credit our elected representatives for doggedly sticking by the city’s flood protection project and making its case. If another budget year passes with no money, it won’t be for our delegation’s lack of effort.

“We’re working every angle possible,” Blum told reporters on a conference call after the meeting.

Money was authorized in 2014 but has not been appropriated. Other projects with better benefit-cost ratio scores got first dibs. The list of backlogged projects is long.

Ernst, Grassley and Blum contend the Army Corps of Engineers benefit-cost model punishes Midwestern communities with lower property values than coastal regions. Projects protecting pricey property get funded ahead of projects shielding middle America. Ernst argues “life and safety” are at risk in Cedar Rapids, which should push the corps to keep its promises.

Left unmentioned is Cedar Rapids’ enhanced flood risk. Iowa State’s Gene Takle and other researchers argue our changing climate is yielding more heavy precipitation events, transforming what was once considered a 100 year flood into a 25-year flood. That climatic reality should boost the benefit value of Cedar Rapids protection even if property values don’t soar. After 2008 and 2016, the writing is on the wall, or, actually, on the HESCO barriers.


Then again, when dealing with team Trump, it might be smarter to leave the climate stuff unmentioned.

“Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward. We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that,” Mulvaney told reporters earlier this month as he outlined the administration’s budget priorities.

So now we’ll really, really need those walls and levees.

Our representatives say Cedar Rapids has two shots. The corps cold use its life and safety rules to move the Cedar River project up its priority list. Or, the president could include the Cedar Rapids project in his promised $1 trillion infrastructure package. Local flood protection is among five priority infrastructure projects submitted to the Trump administration by Gov. Terry Branstad.

“It’s not as easy as it used to be,” said Grassley, recalling the good old days when lawmakers used earmarks to fund local projects. We banished “pork,” so needed projects are stuck in park.

And so, for now, we’ll have to settle for empathy. Better than apathy, but not as good as cash.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com



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