Cedar Rapids secures $2-million federal grant to fund watershed fixes

Money to go to farmers to clean, hold back Cedar River

Bill Northey
Bill Northey

CEDAR RAPIDS — City officials here, who have focused since the 2008 flood on building a flood control system inside the city, on Thursday showed that they also care about the Cedar River watershed above the city.

Mayor Ron Corbett, along with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, announced that a Cedar Rapids-led effort has secured $2 million from a new federally funded watershed conservation program to go with $2.3 million in cash and in-kind help from 16 partner businesses and entities to invest in efforts to clean up and hold back water in a section of the Cedar River watershed.

The funding is intended to go directly to farmers who are willing to participate and share the cost in a variety of projects, such as growing cover crops; using technology to more precisely apply nitrogen to farm fields; and installing buffers, wetlands, and bioreactors to control and clean farm runoff.

The Cedar Rapids led effort, which is called the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, will target a 2,417-square-mile piece of watershed from south of Waterloo to north of Vinton in Black Hawk, Tama, and Benton counties directly above Linn County and Cedar Rapids.

Corbett said Cedar Rapids applied for funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Regional Conservation Partnership Program because improvements in the watershed above the city can lower the risk of future flooding in the city and can improve water quality in the Cedar River, which passes through sediments to feed the city’s well fields.

“Many people talk about the urban-rural divide, but this project shows that urban and rural communities can work together for a common goal,” Corbett said at a morning news conference at the city’s Water Administration Building, 1111 Shaver Rd. NE.

In interviews after the event, Corbett and Northey both said that Cedar Raouds leading the new federally funded project in collaboration with the state, farmers, county conservation agencies, and agricultural businesses and associations was a better approach to improved water quality than the Des Moines Water Works Board’s decision this week to sue three rural counties for doing too little to keep farm pollutants out of the Raccoon River, which provides Des Moines with its water.

Corbett said he favored local control, and so the Des Moines Water Works Board is entitled to address farm runoff and water quality that way if it chooses, he said.

“But the city of Cedar Rapids has decided to cross political boundaries and work with our neighbors up north in a cooperative fashion where everybody has a seat at the table and everybody has a voice,” the mayor said. “I hope this won’t get bogged down in what’s the best tactic. We need to keep the focus on the overall goal, and that’s reducing pollutants that go into our rivers and streams.”

Northey called the Des Moines litigation a “big long shot” and a “confrontational approach that doesn’t address the issue.”

“In my mind, this (Cedar Rapids-led approach) is much better,” Northey said. “I really believe we know a lot of things about how to improve water quality, but we are still learning. The way you address that is to provide some opportunity for innovation and partnerships.”

The $2 million federal grant to the city of Cedar Rapids and the additional $2.3-million in cash and in-kind services provided by partners over five years will allow farmers to try new things and then to champion those that work to other farmers in the state. Farmers will listen more to farmers who have had success than to politicians or governmental officials who are doing the talking, Northey said.

The Cedar Rapids application for watershed funds competed with 600 projects nationwide, of which 115 projects received a total of $370 million nationwide.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship was the only other Iowa project to receive money. The state agency will receive $3.5 million to work on projects in nine of the state’s 57 major watersheds, Marty Adkins, assistant state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said on Thursday.

Northey said the Cedar Rapids-led project secured funds in a “very tough” nationwide competition.


He said the money was coming to an appropriate place in Cedar Rapids. The city processes more corn than any other city in the world, the state agriculture secretary said.

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