In June 2008, critical information on what Cedar Rapids leaders, businesses and residents could expect from the Cedar River too often was as murky as the rising floodwaters.
City crews deployed surveying equipment in an effort to figure out how far floodwaters would reach, a slow, labor-intensive task made futile by rapidly changing crest predictions. The predictions themselves struggled to accurately keep up with reality on the river.
Many residents and business owners based their preparations on the river’s history and their own experience with past flooding. But the Cedar busted through its history in epic fashion with a 31-foot crest, 10 feet beyond its previous record.
The disaster’s cost approached $6 billion. No telling how many millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars, could have been saved by solid, clear and accurate predictions of the flood’s remarkable scope.
Fast forward to September 2016. As the Cedar River menaced Cedar Rapids again, city leaders and residents had fast access to flood inundation maps showing exactly where floodwaters would go, easily updated with changing crest predictions. They could access real-time stream gauge information, flood alerts and information on how predicted precipitation might impact flooding.
Residents and business owners swiftly prepared, packed up and evacuated. Local governments were able to skillfully deploy flood control measures to hold back the crest, minimizing damage.
The difference? Cedar Rapids is smarter when it comes to flooding, for many reasons. But among the biggest factors is the creation of the Iowa Flood Center in 2009.
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The Flood Center, housed at the University of Iowa, created the Iowa Flood Information System, providing those invaluable prediction maps and loads of real time data that’s made the entire state smarter about flood prevention and preparation.
It’s become the go-to resource when waters rise in Iowa. Last fall, as flooding threatened, so many Iowans turned to the center’s online resources that its servers briefly crashed.
The center’s importance to river communities can’t be overstated. Its value vastly exceeds its budget.
So we were stunned this past week when an education spending bill introduced in the Iowa Legislature slashed $1.5 million from the center’s budget. It’s a cut large enough to cripple the center’s ability to maintain the flood information system and hobble its other work studying and preparing for flooding.
Such a cut almost certainly would lead the center to lose a $96.9 million federal grant intended to pay for flood mitigation and water quality improvement efforts in nine Iowa watersheds, including the Middle Cedar upstream from Cedar Rapids. It’s work that will pay big dividends in years ahead.
Outcry over the cut was immediate. Iowans who understand the center’s vital role rallied. Flood Center Director Larry Weber called it “overwhelming and humbling.”
By week’s end, majority Republicans appeared to be backing away from the flood center cut. That’s welcome news, but it’s troubling and maddening that the proposal was ever considered.
And the Flood Center isn’t alone. Lawmakers are proposing to eliminate funding for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, a nationally renowned leader in the development of environmentally responsible farming practices. Erasing the center’s funding at a moment when protecting Iowa’s waterways from polluted agricultural runoff has become a major public policy concern is misguided and shortsighted.
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Yet again, we must consider how we got to this point. Iowa’s economy, though tempered by low farm commodity prices, is generally in good shape. And yet, Statehouse budget-writers can’t find room in their plans even for small but critical investments in flood protection and agricultural innovation.
Something’s wrong with this picture. And a big part of the problem remains the more than $12 billion annually lawmakers have given away over the years in tax cuts, breaks, exemptions and credits.
While this Legislature has been targeting spending, it continues to do precious little to explore whether we’re truly benefiting from these billions in tax giveaways. Surely, some of these tax expenditures can be eliminated or curtailed in the interest of making more pressing investments. There’s much talk of studies, committees and caps, but little in the way of tangible progress.
And until our elected lawmakers dig into revenue side of the budget equation with zeal to match their push for spending cuts, we’re going to continue to be appalled at what we can’t afford. The future of important programs, initiatives and institutions will remain as murky as that floodwater.
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