116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - We are safer, but not safe.
That's the message in Cedar Rapids from Mayor Ron Corbett - fresh off new flood scares here and in Iowa City - at the five-year anniversary of the city's historic 2008 flood.
Corbett's is a cautionary message that comes despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that has been spent and continues to be spent to lessen the damage and the disruption from the next major flood.
All that money, the mayor says, has gone into a long list of improvements since 2008 to protect critical city assets from future flooding, as it has been used to buy out some 1,200 flood-hit homes and 170 or so flood-hit commercial properties at risk of future flood damage.
“If the exact same flood hit again, the damage wouldn't be as great as in 2008 because of the steps we've taken in the last five years,” Corbett says. “But the damage would still be substantial. And that's why we still need to continue to work for long-term, comprehensive flood protection for both sides of the river.”
Such protection could be a decade away, the mayor says.
At the height of the 2008 flood, all but one of the city's 50 or so water wells along the Cedar River were knocked out of service, and today, all of the wells have been raised or reinforced to withstand a repeat of the 2008 flood, says Steve Hershner, the city's utilities director.
Lots of projects
At the same time, the city is starting a $20 million project to build a levee and flood wall system around its wastewater treatment plant, which was forced offline for weeks following the 2008 flood, sending untreated sewage into the Cedar
River. Improvements to repair flood damage to the city's sanitary sewer system that feeds the plant also are under way, Hershner says.
Corbett notes, too, that the Iowa Transportation Commission has now agreed to fund the construction of the $200 million Highway 100 extension project from Edgewood Road NE west and south to Highway 30. That project will provide a new bridge over the Cedar River to help with traffic flow should the downtown bridges become flooded as in 2008.
The city's new library, central fire station and convention complex have been built above the level of the 2008 flood, as have Linn County's new Community Services Building and Juvenile Justice Center.
Also, vital infrastructure at the Paramount Theatre, City Hall and the Veterans Memorial Building as well as the Linn County Courthouse and Linn County's Public Service Center has been moved higher in the buildings out of the way of floodwaters.
Other new buildings, like the Human Services Campus and new federal courthouse, have been built above flood danger; and proposed new buildings along the river, such as the casino and new headquarters for CRST Inc., both are contemplating parking on the lower level to protect against flooding, Corbett says.
Doug Neumann, vice president of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and past head of the former Downtown District, says five years of improvements in the city have made the downtown “more vital and relevant than ever.”
“It is being rebuilt more flood-aware and more economically vibrant,” Neumann says. “But, there's big work still ahead on everything from downtown housing to permanent flood protection.”
Johnson County progress
In five years, much also has been accomplished or is ready to be accomplished in Iowa City and Coralville, both of which sustained significant damage in the 2008 floods.
Both cities have bought out residential property - 93 properties in Iowa City, 200 residential units in Coralville - though Rick Fosse, public works director for the city of Iowa City, notes that some homes and condominiums in Iowa City remain in danger of flooding. Levees are being built to protect some spots.
The Dubuque Street entry into Iowa City, a spot of current and frequent flooding, is being raised, as is the Park Road Bridge along Dubuque Street in a project slated for completion in 2016. At the same time, the city has fortified its well houses to protect its water supply and is consolidating its wastewater treatment operation at one site to keep it above floodwaters.
By 2016, Iowa City will be better prepared, Fosse says, adding, “But we've got a lot to do before we're finished.”
Work that still is ahead includes work at the University of Iowa, which is rebuilding Hancher Auditorium, the School of Music and the Art Building East at new locations.
In Coralville, Ellen Habel, Coralville's assistant city administrator, says the city's new flood-protection program includes levees, stormwater pumps, berms, removable flood walls and the raising and lengthening of two bridges and the raising of rail tracks to help fortify the city.
“All of these things are working to protect us to a level one foot above the level of 2008,” Habel says. “We're still under construction on a lot of these projects, but when we're finished, we're going to have a system to put us in a position for that type of event in the future.”
Can't stop the rain
It's good that flood-hit Iowa cities are taking steps to prepare and protect, says Christopher Anderson, research assistant professor and assistant director of the Climate Science Program at Iowa State University.
In short, Anderson says Iowa has seen plenty of rain and is going to see more rain in the future, especially during Iowa's wettest time of the year, in the spring. The amount of rainfall in Iowa in the past 30 years, he says, has been “unprecedented” compared to any other 30-year period in Iowa dating back to the 1870s.
“And the projections ... indicate a 10 to 15 percent increase above the current unprecedented rainfall,” he continues. On top of that, the water flow in streams and rivers increases twice as much as an increase in rainfall, he adds.
Anderson attributes the increased rain to warmer oceans, which he says is being caused by an increase in greenhouse gases that puts more water into the air. The state may still see a cycle that include periods of drought, but “more rainfall is not going to go away,” he says.
“Climate change will definitely have an impact on future flooding in Iowa. No questions. That is what we're trying to understand better,” Anderson says.
Reducing the risk
Development plays a role in flooding as pavement and roofs replace soil, increasing runoff into waterways, and Stacie Johnson, co-founder and Eastern Iowa manager of the Iowa Stormwater Management Program, says most cities in Iowa can do a lot more to reduce and cleanup what ends up in streams and rivers.
In a recent survey that Johnson conducted in the Cedar River watershed, which extends north to Minnesota, less than 20 percent of the cities in the survey had ordinances that addressed the need to control stormwater runoff.
“Nothing is being done in those cities,” she says.
Her organization is funded by cities in Iowa that are required to have separate storm and sanitary sewer systems and also are required to participate in stormwater education classes.
Until recently, Johnson was a member of Cedar Rapids' Stormwater Commission, which in the last year made several recommendations to the City Council for ways to better manage stormwater runoff. She felt the commission's recommendations largely were ignored.
“In terms of changes we wanted to see, the awareness was raised, but as far as embracing and adopting, they didn't,” Johnson says.
Dennis Goemaat, director of the Linn County Conservation Department, has been working with two new water management organizations, the Upper Cedar River Management Authority and the Indian Creek Watershed Management Authority, both of which are discussing what steps to take in the watersheds above the Cedar Rapids metro area to reduce the level of flooding in the future.
Even so, little has changed in the watersheds in the five years since the 2008 floods, Goemaat says. Watershed management, he points out, isn't intended to stop flooding, but to limit extreme flooding.
“We're trying to reduce that peak flood by holding some of the early rainfall amounts,” Goemaat says. “But it's a big problem, and it's going to take time. It's really going to take targeted practices to figure out where we can put a wetland that is going to do the most good and where the prairies are going to soak up the most water and that kind of thing.”
For now, Goemaat says he supports the construction of levees and flood walls in Cedar Rapids because the city is apt to need both those and watershed management to protect itself in the years ahead.
“I don't think we're safer by any stretch today than we were five years ago,” Goemaat says. “Not a lot really has changed as far as (water management) practices. ... I guess what I worry about is that we haven't implemented anything really meaningful in those five years, and then memories tend to fade. ‘Well, maybe it was a one-time event. Maybe it will never happen again.' We start to get that kind of talk.”
Mayor Corbett says the city of Cedar Rapids hasn't sat by, hoping that “Mother Nature won't throw us another curve.”
The city, the mayor says, has worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to win the Corps' support for a project to protect much of the east side of the city from the Cedar River. The Corps-approved project is in front of Congress now.
At the same time, the city succeeded in convincing the state of Iowa to establish a Flood Mitigation Board, which can dispense a portion of state sales-tax revenue to communities for flood protection if the communities have matching local funds. The city intends to seek an initial state grant to help with funds the city needs to match federal funds for east-side protection and funds it needs to design west-side protection, Corbett says.
He says, too, that the private sector is investing money along the river in downtown in a way that shows they are confident that the city will have flood protection in the years to come.
Corbett says the city's message to federal and state officials has not faltered: “You've invested in Cedar Rapids' flood recovery, now don't you want to help protect that investment you've made?”