What will it take to tame floods?

The Gazette Editorial Board


As if the pain of the historic 2008 floods weren’t enough, American Rivers added to our collective discomfort about the state of the Cedar River two years later. The national advocacy group to protect and restore streams rated the Cedar River No. 5 on its most-endangered rivers list, mostly because of poor flood-management practices.

We don’t know if the Cedar River will be on the 2012 endangered list when it’s announced Tuesday. But after looking deeper into what’s been happening regarding watershed management along the Cedar, it’s clear that we need a road map.

We need a road map that will enable Iowans and their policy makers to better understand what it will take to tame or at least reduce the potential for widespread and epic-level floods that have inflicted billions of dollars in damage and much misery in recent years — “Iowa’s Katrina” event of 2008 being the worst but far from the only example.

We already know that extensive urban development and intensive farming practices over the past century or more greatly changed our landscape and greatly reduced its ability to absorb heavy rainfall. We can’t turn back the clock. We shouldn’t disable the farm and industrial sectors that are so important to our economy and job market. And we can’t just remove all existing development in flood plains.

Yet we clearly need comprehensive strategies for major watersheds such as the Cedar, which drains 10 percent of Iowa.

We need such a road map because many climate experts say we will continue to be at increased risk for more severe weather incidents for decades. Because building flood walls and levees, though justified for protection in some circumstances, is not the best long-term response to flooding. And because limited public and private resources should be committed only to initiatives that produce the maximum effectiveness.

In Iowa, watershed management and its partner — controlling water pollution caused by, for example, runoff from farm fields or urban streets and parking lots — rely on voluntary participation by landowners and public entities. Only point-source pollution corrections are mandatory, under the federal Clean Water Act of 1972.

That approach is spread among several agencies that work with interested landowners and communities, using state and federal funds as incentives, often with local match requirements. Does that work well enough, given the heightened concern about flooding and water quality?

“I don’t think Iowa is ready for more mandatory programs,” said Jeff Tisl, Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Northeast Iowa watershed basin coordinator. “I still have hopes for the voluntary approach through education and incentives,”

Especially since 2008, “more and more people are realizing their off-site responsibility. ... For the most part, landowners are more willing to talk with soil conservation staff and look at the possibilities. It just comes down to whatever we’re trying to come up with, can they work it into their operation? They’re businessmen and have to make it pay but they’re usually willing to consider it.”

Increased awareness and concerns about a 2008 repeat also sparked creation of the Cedar River Watershed Coalition in 2010. Legislators, city officials, county officials, soil and water conservation district commissioners, farmers, business people, environmentalists, and other concerned residents came together voluntarily. No funding. No staff.

What has the coalition accomplished?

“I think the biggest thing is getting people together to talk and learn about watershed issues, getting commitment to shine light on our watershed,” said Mary Beth Stevenson, a DNR employee who helps organize the coalition. The group also has identified about 40 projects that would restore wetlands and prairies and protect forested floodplains.

This coalition also gave birth to another coalition: 22 county conservation boards working together to pool resources for educating the public about flood management issues and strategies.

Stevenson admits her group needs to attract more landowners and other stakeholders to increase its impact.

At the state level, a major post-2008 flood response was legislation requiring the state’s Water Resources Coordinating Council to provide recommendations that promote “a watershed management approach to reduce the adverse impact of future flooding on this state’s residents, businesses, communities and soil and water quality.” Out of that mandate came 16 policy recommendations and nine funding options. Few were adopted by the Legislature.

One that was approved led to Iowa’s first-ever water management authorities. WMAs allow local political entities to organize and create watershed management plans.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, the Legislature’s champion when it comes to addressing watershed management, sponsored legislation creating the WMAs. He continues to argue for a sustained commitment of public and private resources — enough to eventually take at least “3 or 4 feet” off the crest of major floods. How much will that cost?

Well, in 2010, he proposed $600 million in state appropriations over 10 years toward that effort. It didn’t fly.

Perhaps that was just as well.

Although several existing soil conservation and other programs have been and continue to make limited progress, committing that kind of taxpayer money demands, well, a road map if entire large watersheds are to be effectively managed. We simply don’t know yet what combination of conservation and flood control practices will yield the best results, and what it would cost.

Which brings us to the Iowa Flood Center. Authorized by legislators in 2009, the nation’s first academic center devoted to the study of floods is housed at the University of Iowa. One of its key missions: Build several small-scale watershed projects, then evaluate and develop scaled-up models that could be applied to the Cedar River basin and other major watersheds.

Four federally funded projects, including the Upper Cedar in Floyd County, were announced Wednesday as part of the Iowa Watershed Projects. It will be up to five years before results are available for legislators to review and act upon, according to Larry Weber at the Flood Center.

That doesn’t mean smaller-scale improvement projects and programs should be abandoned or seriously underfunded if they’re producing results. This state’s economy is strong enough to invest prudently in those.

But the Flood Center’s initiative is vital to building better long-term flood management strategies along the Cedar and other large watersheds. It can produce the road map to help legislators direct funding where it will pay the most dividends for our environment, economy and quality of life. It’s worth a few years of intensive testing to get it right.

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