Government

Federal aid finally comes through for Cedar Rapids flood protection

Construction continues Thursday on a flood protection levee from Bowling Street SW to the Cedar Rapids-Linn County Solid Waste Agency’s compost and yard waste site at 2250 A St. SW in southwest Cedar Rapids. Officials announced Thursday that long-awaited federal aid for the city’s flood protection system had been approved. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Construction continues Thursday on a flood protection levee from Bowling Street SW to the Cedar Rapids-Linn County Solid Waste Agency’s compost and yard waste site at 2250 A St. SW in southwest Cedar Rapids. Officials announced Thursday that long-awaited federal aid for the city’s flood protection system had been approved. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A decade after the historic flood of 2008 devastated Cedar Rapids, the Army Corps of Engineers has come through with $117 million to help pay for flood protection in the city, officials and agencies said Thursday.

The flood caused an estimated $5.4 billion in property damages and economic losses in the community, and led to years of full-court presses from officials at the federal, state and local levels for federal aid to help build a permanent flood protection system.

/ The Gazette

“Over the past 10 years, the city of Cedar Rapids has worked tirelessly to develop and advance this project which will protect its residents and businesses from future flooding events,” Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, said in a statement. “Hundreds of millions of state and local dollars have already been committed, but what has been missing is this critical federal share of the project.”

The Army Corps on Thursday announced $17.4 billion total awarded for disaster recovery across the country as part of a 2018 budget supplement. The Cedar Rapids project is among 60 flood and storm damage reduction projects in 16 states and one territory included in the Long Term Disaster Recovery Investment Program’s construction funding.

Cedar Rapids designed a $550 million flood control system of walls, levees, gates and pump stations to protect 7.5 miles along the east and west sides of the Cedar River. Projected to take 20 years to construct, inflation could elevate the cost $750 million.

So far, the state has kicked in $267 million and $14 million has come from federal grants. The city already has invested $10 million of its $110 million commitment. But even with the new federal aid, a significant gap exists of at least tens of millions of dollars. With inflation, that funding gap could reach hundreds of millions.

Some had questioned whether federal aid would ever come through, although in the past several months local officials and Iowa’s federal delegation became increasingly optimistic.

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The Army Corps signed off on the design of a project protecting the east side of the river in 2011, saying the west side didn’t meet its benefit-cost ratio threshold. Congress authorized construction — including a $70 to $80 million federal contribution — in the 2014 Water Resources Development Act. Congress prioritized it in future versions of the bill, but until now the money has never been allocated.

While most of the elected Republican officials announcing the award Thursday said it was for about $117 million, a discrepancy remained over the exact amount the city will get.

Ernst, U.S. Rep. Rod Blum and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Cedar Rapids would receive about $117 million.

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, in an emailed statement, said the federal money is going to a $117.48 million project and linked to a 2017 Army Corps report. That report broke down components of a $117.48 million east bank project to include $76.3 million in federal costs and $41.1 million in non-federal costs. Officials reached Thursday were not able to clarify if that had changed since the report was made last year.

Regardless of which amount is correct, local officials are viewing the announcement as a much-needed boost to its underfunded flood control plans.

“It’s a game changer for Cedar Rapids for the long term,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said in a telephone interview. “We can assure our community and state that Iowa’s second-largest community will be able to protect itself from the ravages of flooding as seen in 2008 and 2016.”

Mayor Brad Hart, who also was in the interview, added, added “It seems like a long time coming, but it’s here now and hopefully we can get this done a little more quickly.”

Pomeranz and Hart credited Ernst, Blum, Grassley, the Trump administration, the Army Corps and former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, among others, in helping make it happen. The city noted in a statement that funding for the Cedar Rapids project was included in a bill spearheaded by Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander.

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The Iowa delegation had pressed the Army Corps to revise its benefit-cost ratio used in prioritizing projects — which had the Cedar Rapids in the back of the pack — to better account for the lower property values in the Midwest.

“It’s a great day for Cedar Rapids,” Blum said Thursday evening while in Cedar Rapids. “I’m so happy for Cedar Rapids because it’s not just the protection of life, but it’s a big economic development issue. I think downtown Cedar Rapids will explode” with growth.

He believes it was helpful when his former House colleague and friend Nick Mulvaney became budget director. Blum met with Mulvaney multiple times. He said he also believes it may have become easier to make that case when the president as well as Iowa’s senators and governor are all of the same party.

“It’s all about relationship, really,” Blum said. “I had more opportunity to bend the president’s ear one-on-one — and Grassley and Ernst, too.”

The government’s announcement comes four months before Blum and Reynolds, both facing Democratic challengers, face election Nov. 6.

The city has spent about $61 million so far on flood protection.

A state flood protection initiative called the Growth Reinvestment Initiative allowed Cedar Rapids to keep a portion of sales tax growth to get started on constructing its system. The City Council approved a master plan in 2015 and amended it in 2016. Additional amendments to fine tune it are expected.

The McGrath Amphitheatre was the first significant piece of protection. Work began in earnest on the full system in 2016 with the Sinclair levee, which is complete and protects the New Bohemia district. Projects also underway to protect Czech Village and near Quaker Oats.

Much work remains, though. City leaders are developing a strategy to meet the city’s $110 million commitment and fill the unaccounted for gaps. Recommendations could be made in the coming months.

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“The city is committed to its responsibility and its portion,” Pomeranz said. “The federal government has stepped up and the state has stepped up, and the city will step up.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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