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Reducing flood risk while improving water quality

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Nick Longbucco, guest columnist

This June marks eight years since the historic Flood of 2008. As a Michigan native living in the Creative Corridor and working in downtown Cedar Rapids for only a year, it’s hard to imagine a flood of that magnitude and the devastation it caused in this community. Of course I’ve heard the stories about the flood and how the community came together, seen the photographs and observed high water marks in buildings downtown. While I didn’t experience the disaster myself or the years of costly recovery that followed, I do see the results of that recovery effort: a vibrant community with attractive amenities for young professionals. The people of Cedar Rapids should be proud of their efforts in rebuilding this community.

Now we must reduce the risk of future floods that would jeopardize the recovery and rebuilding effort. This will be no small task. With the frequency of extreme precipitation events expected to increase and more than 1 million acres of water storing grasslands converted to row crops in Iowa since 2008, the risk of extreme flooding is greater than ever. In case one major water challenge wasn’t enough, we’re also contending with increasingly poor water quality. Over the past five years, the Cedar Rapids Water Division has experienced some of the most frequent high nitrate incidents in the state.

Traditional responses to flooding and poor water quality in Iowa have included new levees, higher flood walls and state of the art water treatment technology. The Nature Conservancy is working with partners to promote a new approach focused on upstream conservation practices that will provide lasting solutions for flooding and poor water quality. Priorities include wetland restorations, agricultural conservation practices and consistent funding to support this work.

Over 90 percent of Iowa’s wetlands have been drained for agriculture and development. Restoring wetlands can reduce flood risk by storing 1 million gallons of water per acre and improve water quality by filtering 40-90 percent of nitrates from this water. Restored wetlands also provide excellent wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities such as hunting and wildlife watching. In western Linn County alone, a recent inventory identified 70 potential wetland restorations upstream of Cedar Rapids. There are likely thousands of potential wetland restorations available throughout the Cedar River Basin.

Approximately 90 percent of Iowa is cropland or pasture, so farms offer a tremendous opportunity for reducing flood risk and improving water quality. Agricultural conservation practices being promoted by The Nature Conservancy and its partners include nutrient management, cover crops, reduced tillage, bioreactors and saturated buffers. Cover crops alone have the potential to more than double the water storage capacity of soil, so we could make a very significant impact on flood risk and water quality by implementing this practice throughout the Cedar River Basin.

Implementing upstream wetland restorations and agricultural conservation practices at the scale needed for significant flood risk reduction and water quality improvement will require consistent funding. The Nature Conservancy has worked with partners to leverage multiple federal grants that have provided millions of dollars for wetland restorations and agricultural conservation practices in the Cedar River Basin. We are also working to secure funding for Iowa’s Natural Resources & Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which will provide more than $125 million annually for improving water quality and reducing flood risk.

Local support is critical for this new approach for addressing flooding and water quality challenges to be successful. The City of Cedar Rapids is playing a leadership role in the Middle Cedar Partnership Project that secured a large federal grant for upstream conservation practices. The Linn County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution supporting upstream conservation practices and is assisting with wetland restorations in Linn County. Local companies and foundations are playing a leadership role in the funding of upstream conservation practices.

As part of our This is Iowa capital campaign, The Nature Conservancy recently announced an initiative to raise $1.5 million to restore 50 wetlands upstream of Cedar Rapids. To date, we have raised $1 million to restore 35 wetlands that will store and filter an estimated 300 million gallons of water. These wetlands, many of which will be located on public land in Linn County, were made possible by a generous leadership gift of $750,000 from CRST International. Additional local wetlands donors include the Alliant Energy Foundation, Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, Hall-Perrine Foundation, McIntyre Foundation, Rockwell Collins and the United Fire Group. In the months ahead, we will work with the community to reach our goal of 50 wetlands and demonstrate how a community can take tangible action to help address its flooding and water quality challenges.

• Nick Longbucco is the Cedar Basin freshwater manager for The Nature Conservancy in Iowa. Comments: Nicholas.Longbucco@tnc.org; More information: nature.org/iowa

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