What they're thinking: Cedar Rapids Public Works Director Jen Winter

In age of climate change polarization, how a public works official in a flood-prone city does her job

Cedar Rapids Public Works Director Jen Winter
Cedar Rapids Public Works Director Jen Winter

CEDAR RAPIDS — Flooding has become a year-round threat, but spring is a time of particular concern.

In Cedar Rapids, Public Works Director Jen Winter is at the front line of flood fighting before, during and after such events. Winter has been director since 2015 after serving as a regional director at HR Green, an engineering firm.

Winter shares her observations about spring flooding, local impacts of climate change, and how she navigates a divisive topic.

Q: What do weather forecasts and predictions for the spring mean for Cedar Rapids?

A: We’re not seeing an elevated risk for flooding, as of right now. That can change. We don’t know how much snowfall we will get between now and when we really get into our spring flooding or how much they’ll get to the north of us, which certainly impacts what goes on here ... We rely pretty heavily on the National Weather Service, and they send us out periodic updates on a spring flooding outlook. Right now, the main concern is the Mississippi River Basin. They’re seeing a higher risk of flood potential, similar to what we saw last year. There’s a normal risk level for the rest of us sitting on the Cedar River and some of the other more local rivers throughout the state.

Q: What factors do you consider?

A: [In addition to snowfall locally and upstream of Cedar Rapids], there’s also the frost depth. The depth of the frost in the ground and how long that’ll take to get out of the ground. One thing that’s working in our favor, so far, is that most of the rivers are still open and flowing. Ice jamming is always a concern for spring flooding. It also makes spring flooding a little harder to predict. In the years where we’ve had fall flooding, we can rely on those upstream river gauges. In spring flooding, they become a little more unreliable because we don’t know where the ice jams are, so we don’t know where we might be getting false readings because of ice jamming. A lot of the times we have to chase the river. We’ll have people either that we know in other communities that can tell us what’s happening north of here, or sometimes we’ll send our own staff up the river just to see if they can see if some of the readings coming off those gauges might be false.

Q: How is Cedar Rapids prepared if it floods?

A: We’re pretty much continually updating our flood response planning and really for the better. Every time we do anything on the permanent flood control system that helps us with our flood response planning. [Pumps, levees and walls added in NewBo and Czech Village have lessened the need for temporary protection when the river rises.] We stockpile sandbags. And then we also keep the HESCO barriers [cubed building blocks to be filled with sand] in storage enough to build our temporary system. We have on-call contracts with contractors for emergency response, so we would be able to mobilize contractors quickly if we saw a threat for flooding and we need to build that temporary system ... That and training.


Q: Whether you call it extreme weather or climate change, weather patterns are changing. What affect does it have from your vantage point in municipal government?

A: We have definitely seen a change in extreme weather events, and we have also seen a change in farming practices, and both of those things have led to increased flooding. We see higher-intensity rainfalls occurring over a shorter period of time, which affects the Cedar River major flooding and also greatly impacts the localized flash flooding. In 2014, we saw upward of 7 to 9 inches of rain in a localized area, and that flash flooding is just very, very difficult to plan for and deal with. We can’t really build our infrastructure for that. [Also], historically, we’ve seen very little fall flooding events, and now we’re seeing an increase in those fall flooding events, and we don’t know exactly what those are attributed to but certainly changing weather patterns is coming into play. We don’t just have to worry about spring flooding, we really have to worry about flooding for 12 months a year now.

Q: How does it affect policies? Are you designing infrastructure, such as bridges, differently?

A: We’re looking for areas of regional detention [of water]. We are working with watershed management authorities, which have been really important to help with the extreme weather events and also with the change in farming practices ... I’m not educated in all areas of those farming practices, but what I do know is increased tiling that the farmers have done has contributed to quicker flash flooding events. Because we’ve seen higher river elevations, we’ve had to change what the design of bridges look like going forward in terms of deck elevation and number of piers. Looking at replacing the Eighth Avenue Bridge, one of the critical components of that design is to minimize the number of piers in the water to try to allow water flow through there.

Q: Climate change is such a politically charged topic. Do the politics impact your ability to do your job?

A: I don’t know that we’ve really had to tackle it as climate change as much as we’ve taken the approach of resiliency and how do we best design the infrastructure that we’re building to last for what’s going to happen in the next 100 years to the best ability that we can do that. It’s our job to plan and build infrastructure for the future, and we have to do that with the best information we have so we have to look at the science of it from the standpoint that we have seen more extreme weather events. We have seen our highest river elevations occur in the last decade ... We have had (City Council) support in relying on us to be the subject matter experts.

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