Eleven years ago, Iowa faced an epic flood. Today, we find ourselves in an eerily similar situation. After a harsh winter, extreme rainfall on frozen ground sent rivers out of their banks. More recently, repeated severe storms generated dozens of tornados and massive long-term flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries. Many Iowans are watching ongoing flooding devastate their homes and lives.
We do, however, have something to celebrate. Thanks to the work of the Iowa Flood Center (IFC) at the University of Iowa, Iowans can take on the floods with accurate information and a level of preparedness that was not possible in 2008.
This year, IFC is marking its 10th birthday on June 13 in Iowa City. We hope you’ll join us for a day of tours and activities, culminating with an evening event at Big Grove Brewery, including a panel discussion on flooding. You can learn more on our website: iowafloodcenter.org.
The Birth of the Iowa Flood Center
A group of farsighted Iowa legislators, led by Cedar Rapids’ Rob Hogg, created the IFC in 2009 in the aftermath of the 2008 flood. IFC has spent the last decade serving Iowans with innovative tools and resources to help us understand and reduce our flood risks.
We can be proud of our state’s leadership in flood research. IFC is the only academic center dedicated solely to the study of floods. It’s an investment that has paid off for Iowans, who can take advantage of IFC’s advances and developments, including the following: 250-plus stream gauges that provide real-time river levels; more than 5,000 community flood inundation maps that show flood probability, extent, and depth; a real-time, statewide flood forecasting system; the Iowa Flood Information System (IFIS), an online tool available to the public that displays up-to-the-minute flood information; and the Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA), which takes a holistic approach to flood mitigation. Over the past decade, IFC has built upon nearly $14 million in state-appropriated funding to secure an additional $130 million for flood-first projects across Iowa—an outstanding return on investment.
Still, there is more to do. Here are three ways we can prepare for the next flood.
Expanded Sensor Network
Our partners — emergency managers, local officials, and others — have requested more than 100 additional stream gauges to enhance flood monitoring and forecasting. According to Buchanan County Emergency Manager Rick Wulfekuhle, additional stream gauges on the Wapsipinicon River near Independence, for instance, would help fill a void where there is little radar-rainfall coverage. The additional information would help local officials make better informed decisions during flood events.
The IFC’s network of 20 hydrologic stations helps researchers understand conditions in the watershed; our goal is to deploy one station in each county to better predict floods, assess droughts, and manage water resources. For farmers, this information is vital. Stewart and Jared Maas farm about 1,800 acres west of Iowa City, where they host an IFC hydrologic station. They report that the online data help them determine when the soil is ready to plant and the best time for field applications.
Improve Flood Risk Assessment
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With over 1,000 county-wide flood-related Presidential Disaster Declarations in the past 30 years, we must ask if our decisions on development permits, engineering design, and flood insurance are based on accurate information. Observational evidence indicates that increasing rainfall frequency and intensity, as well as concerns about changing weather patterns due to climate change, call for updates in flood frequency assessment methodologies (i.e., the “100-year flood” and the like). IFC is teaming up with state and federal agencies, with whom we have built excellent working relationships, to address this problem.
Grow the Iowa Flood Information System
Thanks to IFIS, Iowa is a leader in flood preparedness. The online platform provides up-to-the-minute data on stream levels, precipitation, flood inundation, and more. Recently, IFC helped the state of South Dakota develop a similar system for the Big Sioux River, which drains to the Missouri River in Iowa. A grant from the Department of Transportation is supporting IFC efforts to develop a similar platform for other states in the region.
We have learned from recent extreme events, and we know that history will repeat itself — perhaps in ways we can’t imagine. Now is the time to look to the future and prepare. We take the trust vested in us by the Iowa Legislature seriously, and we are delivering on that vision with energy and dedication. Together, we are building a stronger Iowa.
• Witold Krajewski is director of the Iowa Flood Center.