Staff Editorials

Funding model only part of flood woes

Geese congregate near the edge of a 4.4-acre detention basin and a 12-foot wide bicycle and pedestrian trail after a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Sinclair levee flood protection system in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. The Sinclair levee marks the first permanent measures completed since the adoption of the master plan adopted by the city council in July 2015. The levee provides immediate protection to the NewBo/Sinclair District up to a 20-foot river crest. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Geese congregate near the edge of a 4.4-acre detention basin and a 12-foot wide bicycle and pedestrian trail after a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Sinclair levee flood protection system in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. The Sinclair levee marks the first permanent measures completed since the adoption of the master plan adopted by the city council in July 2015. The levee provides immediate protection to the NewBo/Sinclair District up to a 20-foot river crest. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Nearly a decade since the devastating floods of 2008, our community progress toward permanent flood protection has been worryingly slow.

Cedar Rapids leaders deserve credit for the headway they’ve made, like the newly completed Sinclair levee. The half-mile barrier between the Cedar River and the New Bohemia District is the city’s first large-scale, permanent flood project completed since the record-breaking flood in 2008.

It’s not that state or local authorities are dragging their feet. Instead, critical funding is tied up by the federal government. Recent developments in Washington, D.C. make us cautiously optimistic funding may soon be secured, but we’re not out of high water quite yet.

The total cost of Cedar Rapids’ flood protection plans is an estimated $600 million. The city and state governments have already committed more than half that total, in addition to $73 million from the federal government. However, while the federal portion has been authorized by Congress, the money is still not available.

Iowa leaders have taken issue with the formula for divvying up funding between all of the approved flood projects around the nation. The federal government’s benefit-to-cost ratio, known to politicians and bureaucrats as BCR, gives priority to areas with higher property values.

Rural states like Iowa are at a disadvantage, even though the threat to property here is clearly significant. Authorities estimate statewide damage from the 2008 floods reached about $6 billion.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst addressed that discrepancy during a confirmation hearing this month for R.D. James, a Trump administration appointee to oversee the Army Corps of Engineers. Ernst asked the nominee to promise to reconsider the funding formula if he’s confirmed.

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“It’s not right that there are people in this country who will never, ever get any type of water infrastructure project under the current BCR analysis,” James said during his confirmation hearing in the Senate.

There’s no doubt that’s a positive development for Iowa and other rural states. Ernst is correct that the formula is not fair.

But to be clear, that change is is not the final solution for injecting common sense into federal flood protection programs. The other side of the equation deals with our flood prediction models, which seem increasingly outdated. Research published by Iowa scientists last year found what’s considered a 100-year flood is now four times more likely, and climate change is most likely to blame.

Most Republican leaders in Washington, D.C. refuse to believe climate change is caused by burning carbon into the air. Yet it still should be obvious to Iowans in recent years that extreme weather events are becoming more common.

We hope Iowa’s federal delegation can successfully lobby federal bureaucrats to change their broken funding model, but until government leaders get serious about studying the impacts of climate change, there will be no sea change in flood prevention.

Our climate is changing, and our homes and public infrastructure must be prepared. Politicians can go ahead believing emissions are not the culprit, but their wishful thinking will not hold back the Cedar River.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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