Johnson County officials want to revise spillway policies, but study unfunded

Proposal could result in changes to protocols at Coralville Lake

John Castle, Retired Corps of Engineers
John Castle, Retired Corps of Engineers

Some Iowa officials want to change protocols for how much water is released from the Coralville Lake to reduce chances of catastrophic floods like the one in 2008, which caused more than $1 billion damage in Iowa City and Coralville.

A study that could result in changes to these protocols at the Coralville Lake and two other man-made reservoirs in Iowa would cost $4.7 million — a hefty price tag in a time of federal budget cuts.

“Some of this is ‘pay me now’ or ‘pay me later’,” said Marge Penney, whose house along the Iowa River north of Iowa City flooded in 1993 and 2008.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the Coralville Lake, drafted a proposal in July 2010 to study releasing more water early in the season and increasing dam storage pools, among other options, to reduce flood damage along the Des Moines River and the Iowa/Cedar river corridor.

The Corps submitted the Reservoir Regulation Plan Studies proposal for funding in fiscal 2011 — and every year after — but the plan has failed to gain support from President Barack Obama or Congress.

Corps criticized

The Iowa River in Iowa City and the Coralville Lake set record crests in June 2008, when water topped the lake’s spillway for the first time since 1993. That water flooded 20 University of Iowa buildings, causing more than $1 billion in damage, and inundated more than 1,000 houses and businesses in Johnson County.

The Corps’ operation manual limits lake outflow to 10,000 cubic feet per second until May 1 each year. After that date, the release limit is lowered to 6,000 cfs to protect farmland. The Corps deviated from protocol in May 2008, but it wasn’t enough to save Iowa City and Coralville from the worst flooding.

“There are a lot of people in Iowa City who think we should release more water earlier in the cycle,” said John Castle,

who was lake operations manager in 2008. “With 20/20 hindsight, we would have said ‘the farmland is going to flood anyway, let’s release it’.”

Castle, who retired in December 2011 after 35 years, said the Corps’ protocol doesn’t recognize the amount of commercial, university and residential development that has occurred along the Iowa River in the last 20 years.

Dave Wilson, Johnson County emergency management coordinator, also thinks the protocols should change.

“It’s a lot cheaper to write a check for crop losses than for the UI arts campus,” he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has so far paid $484 million for public assistance, individual assistance and mitigation in Johnson County because of the flood. Of that, $449 million went to the UI.

Personal level

Penney’s house in Zaiser’s Addition, at the end of Stewart Road north of Iowa City, took on about three feet of water in 2008, despite raising the elevation of the house after the 1993 floods.

“We had our house lifted to what was theoretically a safe level, but that didn’t work,” Penney said.

Federal and state agencies paid $2.9 million to purchase and demolish 14 houses in Johnson County floodways. Eight of those homes were in Zaiser’s Addition. Penney’s house was not demolished, but has new owners since Marge and her partner, T.J., moved to higher ground.

During 30 years by the river, Penney developed a good relationship with the Corps. Even as the water was rushing toward her house in June 2008, she knew Corps officials were making the best decisions they could within bounds of the operations manual.

The Corps’ reservoir study would analyze water control plans and physical modifications at the Coralville Lake; Saylorville Lake, near Des Moines; and Lake Red Rock, near Pella. The Coralville portion of the study is estimated to cost $1.72 million. Saylorville and Red Rock, both located on the Des Moines River, would be studied together for $3 million.

Why no funding?

The Corps points to Iowa’s ongressional delegation to explain why the proposal hasn’t been funded.

“Rep. Braley is aware of the study and supports it,” said Jeff Giertz, spokesman for Rep. Bruce Braley, who leads Iowa’s 1st Congressional District. Braley plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Sen. Tom Harkin retires.

Harkin believes the key to reducing flood costs is removing buildings from the flood plain.

Rep. Dave Loebsack wrote a letter to Obama July 26, 2010, asking for the study to be funded.

“We must have a plan in place to prevent future devastation like we saw in 2008 and to effectively, fairly and scientifically manage water flow release rates,” Loebsack wrote to The Gazette.

The three Democrats were silent on whether the study might be included in the fiscal 2015 budget. Iowa’s Republicans in Congress, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Rep. Steve King and Rep. Tom Latham, did not respond to questions from The Gazette about the flood study.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.