Corps official: Costly Coralville Lake flood study may not be necessary

Mitigation efforts since 2008 may allow for some procedural changes, lake manager says

Water pours out of the Coralville Lake dam into the Iowa River Sunday, June 2, 2013 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette
Water pours out of the Coralville Lake dam into the Iowa River Sunday, June 2, 2013 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

Federal budget cuts and a congressional ban on earmarks have hindered efforts to get funding for an Iowa reservoir study that officials say could reduce costly flooding.

Although the Army Corps of Engineers proposed the $4.7 million study, a local Corps official calls the plan exorbitant and said it may not be necessary to change procedures at the Coralville Lake, which plays a role in flood control for Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.

“Folks can say, ‘Oh, you need a study,’ ” said Dee Goldman, Coralville Lake operations manager. “Well, studies are expensive. Maybe we can do this without a study.”

The Coralville Lake came within feet of topping the spillway last week, the highest level it’s been since June 2008, when much of the University of Iowa campus, as well as parts of Iowa City and Coralville, were inundated by the Iowa River.

This year, high water has closed Iowa City’s Dubuque Street and caused evacuation of several neighborhoods. The UI estimates it will spend $5 million erecting and tearing down temporary flood walls.

This flood, like 2008, has caused a lot of second guessing.

Mark Phelps, who lives on Taft Speedway in Iowa City, was about three feet from having water in his garage last week. He moved his house over the garage after the flood of 2008. Phelps doesn’t understand why the Corps didn’t release more water from Coralville Lake in mid-May to reduce the chances of topping the spillway.

“This could have all been avoided if they had let out more water sooner,” he said.

Downstream interests

Coralville Lake was built in the late 1950s for flood protection and recreation. The reservoir collects runoff from a watershed that spans 3,100 square miles and extends past Marshalltown toward Eldora and Rowan. The lake’s concrete spillway is designed to hold up to 712 feet above sea level. It has flooded only twice — in 1993 and 2008.

The Corps’ regulation manual allows 10,000 cfs of water to be released until May 1, when it drops to 6,000 cfs to protect farmland downstream. Officials must seek permission to deviate from these protocols, last changed in 1996.

Corps officials dropped the discharge to 1,000 cfs for a few days in May because of concerns the Cedar River might back up in Louisa County, where the Cedar and Iowa rivers meet. The Corps is required to consider how lake discharge will affect towns as far south as Quincy, Ill., and Hannibal, Mo.

“Even though some of the local conditions may seem to be fine and indications are that we should be able to safely discharge some water, we are concerned with a much larger area,” Goldman wrote in a May 27 email to an Iowa City resident.

In 2010, the Corps drafted a proposal for the Iowa Reservoir Regulation Plan Studies to develop alternatives at Coralville, Saylorville and Red Rock that would reduce flooding on the Iowa River and Des Moines River. The $4.7 million study would look, in part, at how the 2008 flood changed the landscape for Iowa River towns.

In Oakville, a tiny Louisa County town hit hard by the 2008 flood, 90 of 175 houses damaged by floodwater have been purchased by the government and demolished, the Associated Press reported.

It’s possible towns like Oakville could take on higher water now than when lake discharge protocols were developed, Goldman said.

People along the Des Moines River also want a study of reservoir practices.

Low-lying Des Moines neighborhoods flooded in 2008 and 2010 as water topped the spillway at the Saylorville Lake. Each time the Des Moines River rises, the city spends money to reduce flood risk and clean up after the water goes down, City Manager Rick Clark said.

“If we can get ahead of these events, we can actually save money,” he said.

Study is tough sell

The reservoir study, first proposed for fiscal 2011 funding, can’t get traction in Congress.

“It’s difficult to get enough funds to keep these Corps facilities operational, even before funding studies of the operations,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from New Hartford, said in an email to The Gazette. “Even so, I’ve had conversations about the lack of funds with Senate appropriators and will continue to work with the Corps and Iowans to find ways to address the challenges brought by flooding.”

Part of the problem is a congressional ban on earmarks. In the past, a reservoir study might have been tacked onto a budget bill to get lawmakers in affected areas to approve the legislation. Now earmarks are synonymous with pork, and these sweeteners are prohibited.

“Trying to get the entire Congress to approve this has become very difficult,” said Ron Fournier, spokesman for the Corps’ Rock Island District.

Even if state and local agencies wanted to help pay for a reservoir study, they couldn’t.

“We don’t have authorization to cost-share those studies with the public,” Fournier said.

Even for vital lock-and-dam repairs along the Mississippi River, the Corps must seek congressional approval to share the cost with private companies with a stake in moving goods along the river.

“I find it terribly frustrating that the system itself is so cumbersome and ineffectual these days,” Des Moines’ Clark said.

Dave Wilson, Johnson County emergency manager, believes the reservoir study should be moved from the Corps to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is charged with providing grants to state and local governments for hazard-mitigation projects following natural disasters.

Study alternative?

Goldman sees another option.

After this year’s flooding subsides, he wants to get together with officials from up and down the Iowa River to discuss whether mitigation efforts since 2008 allow communities to handle higher water with less damage.

“Why should we spend this exorbitant amount of money if we can work together on watershed management?” Goldman said.

This information could help the Corps seek temporary deviations, which are approved by a watershed management coordinator.Permanent regulation manual changes require a thorough study, complete with public meetings up and down the river corridor, Fournier said. The final decision would be made by Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the Mississippi River Commission, located in Vicksburg, Miss. 

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