Government

After years of planning, Clear Creek watershed improvement projects move closer to reality

Clear Creek flows into the Iowa River near First Avenue in Coralville in this Gazette file photo from 2010. The 66,000-a
Clear Creek flows into the Iowa River near First Avenue in Coralville in this Gazette file photo from 2010. The 66,000-acre Clear Creek watershed has been allocated $4.1 million for projects that will reduce flooding and improve water quality. (The Gazette)

OXFORD — Cindy Maher’s grandchildren love to play in the creek that snakes behind her 20 acres in rural Oxford.

But when erosion in the creek became a concern two years ago, Maher had to limit her grandchildren’s activity in the creek.

“Besides being concerned about all that soil rushing downstream, I have these young grandkids that love to go back there,” Maher said. “I stopped them from going unless I was with them because I was afraid ... something would cave in on them.”

Maher spent her own time and money trying to address the issue, she said. While she slowed the erosion some, Maher said she didn’t think she’d ever get to the point where she felt comfortable with her grandchildren playing in the creek.

“I was out there trying to fix it myself, and it was going nowhere fast,” she said.

Maher said a neighbor told her about a local program he was participating in that aims to control the quantity and quality of the Clear Creek watershed, which includes Maher’s property. Now, Maher and her neighbor’s properties are part of a larger package of nine practices recently put out to bid by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.

All nine practices are part of the ongoing work done by the Clear Creek Watershed Association, which is coordinated by John Rathbun. After two years of meeting with landowners and working with engineers to determine which practices would be feasible in the watershed, physical work should begin later this year.

“It’s real exciting,” Rathbun said. “I’d hoped we’d been here a year ago.”

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The Clear Creek watershed is one of nine targeted watersheds in Iowa to receive a total of $96.9 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address flooding and water quality.

At 66,132 acres, the Clear Creek watershed is the smallest of the nine. It stretches from the unincorporated Iowa County community of Conroy to Oxford, Tiffin and Coralville. It touches North Liberty and Iowa City and largely is bordered by Interstate 80 to the south and Highway 6 to the north.

Rathbun, who was hired as project coordinator in April 2017 and is employed by the Soil and Water Conservation District, has spent most of his time up to now doing outreach with landowners and farmers in the watershed. Rathbun said he’s done more than 100 site visits, worked with about 35 landowners interested in doing projects and has about 77 individual water management practices in mind.

“We had a really good response,” he said. He has met with landowners on their land and “walked through what they’d like to see done.”

“It wasn’t just that they wanted to have a pond here. They wanted to be part of this larger project, which I was really thrilled about,” Rathbun said.

The potential practices in the watershed include ponds, water and sediment control basins and grade stabilization projects. All told, the Clear Creek Watershed Coalition has been allocated $4.1 million to cover design, construction, outreach and Rathbun’s salary. The Johnson County Board of Supervisors is the fiscal agent for those funds.

“It allows us to do a lot of things in the Clear Creek Watershed that we’re just really excited about,” said Rod Sullivan, chairman of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.

Rathbun said the primary goal is to reduce flooding in the watershed during heavy rainfall.

“Take that water that comes down and spread out its release over a couple of days instead of having it rush down all at the same time,” he said.

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While the results will be difficult to quantify because rainfall varies across the watershed, Rathbun said the coalition is working with the Iowa Flood Center on the project. As practices get completed, the Iowa Flood Center will be able to update flood projection models on the watershed.

“It would seem to be possible to take a 1-inch rainstorm from 2008 and compare it to one in 2022 after we have everything done and kind of correlate those,” he said.

A secondary benefit is to improve erosion into the watershed and improve water quality. That won’t be measured, Rathbun said.

Sullivan said he is hopeful the “early adopters” to this program such as Maher and her neighbor spur others in the watershed to take similar measures.

“This is what we’re calling ‘bid package No. 1’ because we expect more,” he said. “I think that’s one of the important things — that this stuff is going to be probably building upon itself. That will help even more.”

Rathbun said after the first round of practices go out to bid, construction should begin this fall. Because the project sunsets in 2021, he needs to have construction completed by November of next year. Rathbun said he hopes to have all of the Clear Creek watershed practices out to bid by the end of summer 2020.

Landowners who participate in the project will be on the hook for about 10 percent of the costs on their land. Maher said that’s a small price to pay.

“I had already spent what I will spend in the 10 percent just trying to fix it myself,” she said. “It didn’t take me long to realize this wasn’t going to be economically possible for me to do this ... My goals were twofold, and that was erosion and safety. Any of the other benefits that come out of this are just gravy for me.”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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