Staff Columnist

Another brick in the flood wall saga, thanks to federal bucks

Temporary flood protection is seen to shore up the construction area for a permanent flood wall at the Quaker facility along the Cedar River in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018.  (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Temporary flood protection is seen to shore up the construction area for a permanent flood wall at the Quaker facility along the Cedar River in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Cedar Rapids leaders formally landed federal funding Tuesday for the city’s celebrated flood control system. And boy do I mean celebrated.

There were high-fives in July when word came from Iowa’s congressional delegation that long-awaited funding for levees and flood walls on the east bank of the Cedar River was added to an emergency appropriations bill. In August, the city threw a celebratory lunch honoring the congressional delegation and all who worked to win federal bucks.

On Tuesday, at a special, make that very special, City Council meeting, the city signed its partnership agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers, providing $117 million, including a $41 million loan. Applause, congrats and photos followed.

“It’s a great day for the city,” said Col. Steven Sattinger, who commands the corps’ Rock Island District.

The city agreed. “It’s been a lot of work by a lot of people,” said City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, who called the massive project one of most significant infrastructure “feats” in the city’s history.

Can’t argue. So why not celebrate? It’s been a long road.

Eight years ago, there was no celebration when the corps released findings of its flood control feasibility study, concluding it could only justify funding protection on the east side of the river. A benefit-cost analysis of the project concluded that although east side measures would provide benefits beyond cost — but just barely — west side protection wasn’t worth it.

Corps models concluded that although the 2008 flood was epic, the river’s history indicated chances of a repeat were slim. Higher property values on the east side, the core of downtown, helped push its portion of the project over the top.

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The city was blindsided. Then Congress dragged its funding feet. Officials turned to the state, which allowed the city to keep $264 million in state sales taxes collected here over two decades. Much of that money is paying for west side protection. The city will be raising property taxes over the next 10 years to cover its share of the overall project.

Now, federal work can begin in earnest.

“We’ve got five years, and the clock is already started,” Sattinger said.

Yep, the federal money must be spent within five years, so east side protection will be built on an accelerated time line. But it will take roughly 15 years to complete protection on the west side. It’s a sensitive split-screen not explicitly mentioned Tuesday, but clearly was on leaders’ minds.

“I’m confident that will happen,” Mayor Brad Hart said of efforts to protect both banks.

“We look forward to protecting both sides of the Cedar River,” said Council member Ann Poe.

City Flood Control Manager Rob Davis insists the corps has concluded that an east side system will not significantly worsen flooding on the west side. That’s a message the city needs to explain early and often, because not all are convinced. “We’re all in for both sides,” Davis said.

This step forward is welcome. We’ve seen in recent years how major flooding is no statistical fluke. The river and the climate are less reliable even than Congress. Not to rain on anyone’s celebration.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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