# Floodplain Management

2010 Iowa flooding thread

After a not-very-wet June, this summer’s weather has turned disastrous across much of Iowa. Many communities in the eastern part of the state were devastated in July. The dam failure that ruined Lake Delhi attracted most of the media attention, but extensive property damage occurred in many other communities, including Waterloo, Oelwein and Maquoketa.

Central Iowa has had close to 10 inches of rain in the past few days, and floodwaters in Ames are higher than they were in 1993 or 2008. Parts of I-35 and Highway 30 near Ames were closed on August 11, and the city’s water treatment plant is not operational, so there is a boil order for drinking water.

Oskaloosa, Fort Dodge and parts of the Des Moines area have also experienced some terrible flash flooding.

A 16-year-old girl died after her car was one of three swept off the road near Altoona. Amazingly, 10 of her friends escaped. Please don’t try to drive across roads covered by water. Most people who drown during floods die in their cars.

The immediate concern is keeping people safe and restoring damaged property, but at some point Iowa policy-makers need to do something to improve our floodplain management. During this year’s legislative session, lobbyists for city officials and chambers of commerce were able to block even minimal steps recommended by the state’s Water Resources Coordinating Council.

I noticed that uber-hack Krusty Konservative is blaming I-JOBS for failing to prevent this summer’s flooding. The reality is we need to invest more in flood prevention. State Senator Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids recently estimated that for “about $700 million over the next 10 to 20 years […] we can hold thousands of acre-feet of water in our watershed, reap many economic and environmental benefits, and avoid much of the expense and trauma of having to clean up our homes, businesses and neighborhoods again when the next flood happens.”

This thread is for any comments related to the floods.

UPDATE: Governor Chet Culver discussed the flooding on August 12:

The historic flooding that hit Ames over the last two days, as well as floods that have ravaged many eastern Iowa cities over the past few years, are the “new normal” and a sign the state must improve flood-prevention efforts, Gov. Chet Culver said at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

“We are seeing unprecedented flooding – the flooding in Ames is worse than ’93,” Culver said. “Anything the state can do in terms of flood mitigation will be done. We can be smarter in terms of planning and conservation efforts. We need to be aggressive in terms of taking steps regarding flood mitigation.”  

Radio Iowa brings some bad news:

The head of the state’s emergency management division says areas of the state which are dealing with the aftermath of flooding today may see another surge of flood water within the next two days. Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Managment administrator David Miller says the National Weather Service predicts rain will fall north of Highway 30 within the next 48 hours.

“Frankly things are pretty well saturated and we have a very narrow window of opportunitiy to mitigate any future damages, so we’ve encouraged local (officials) to look at their critical infrastructure,” Miller says. “What needs to be safeguarded now?”

Miller is urging local governments to take steps “ahead of the storm” to protect drinking water systems and waste-water treatment plants.  “If we get more precipitation than anticipated, we could have severe flooding,” Miller says.  “If it comes further south than what the Weather Service is currently predicting then, again, we could have severe problems, so we’re paying attention to that.”

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Events coming up this weekend and next week

Iowa county fair season is in full swing, and the Association of Iowa Fairs posts the schedule here. You may even run into some local candidates and elected officials.

The Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter has nature hikes and other group outings scheduled around the state this summer. Click here to view the calendars for your area.

The Johnson County-based group Backyard Abundance provides advice and educational events for people who want to grow food in urban environments or want to transform their yards into a low-maintenance, eco-friendly landscape.  I’m a big fan of letting native Iowa plants take over your yard.

Democrats are out canvassing most weekends from here through the November election. Iowa Democratic candidates, please send me notices of your upcoming public events, fundraisers or volunteer opportunities if you would like me to include them on these calendars.

Details for some political and environmental events are after the jump. Please post a comment or e-mail me at desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com if you have something to add.

Seeing the announcement about Polk County Supervisor Tom Hockensmith’s picnic next weekend reminded me of the latest political rumor going around Des Moines: former third district Congressional candidate Dave Funk is expected to challenge Hockensmith in the next supervisor’s race. I’ve seen no public confirmation of the rumor, though.

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Group names Cedar River fifth most endangered in U.S.

For 25 years, American Rivers has released annual reports on “America’s Most Endangered Rivers.” Only one waterway in the Midwest made the group’s top ten list for 2010: Iowa’s Cedar River, which came in at number 5. American Rivers comments:

The Cedar River harbors globally rare plant communities, provides critical habitat for fish and wildlife, and is a popular destination for paddlers and anglers. However, outdated flood management and poor watershed planning are impacting public health and safety by causing pollution and increasing the risk of flood damage. The Army Corps of Engineers must prioritize lower cost, non-structural flood management solutions on the Cedar River. These natural solutions will help reduce flood damage, improve water quality, restore fish and wildlife habitat, and provide recreational opportunities and economic benefits while saving taxpayer dollars.

Go here to download a factsheet with more information about the Cedar River and why it’s “endangered.”

Perry Beeman posted the full press release from American Rivers at the Des Moines Register’s blog. Excerpt:

“We have an opportunity to learn from the devastating floods of 1993 and 2008 and rebuild smarter and stronger. We need to incorporate non-structural, natural solutions that provide flood protection, improve water quality, enhance fish and wildlife habitat, and provide recreational opportunities and economic benefits to local communities,” said Sean McMahon, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Iowa.

“It is time for Iowans to insist that state and federal flood protection policies work to reduce flood damage by moving people and structures out of harms way, allowing the flood plain to perform its natural function to absorb and slow the river’s flow during future floods,” said Susan Heathcote with Iowa Environmental Council.

“The newly-organized Cedar River Watershed Coalition has recognized the need to take a holistic approach to watershed management by reaching across city and county jurisdictions to take a whole watershed approach to flood mitigation and river restoration.  This innovative group of concerned individuals and communities is committed to working together to reduce the impacts of flooding in the watershed and to improve water quality in the Cedar River,” said Rosalyn Lehman with Iowa Rivers Revival.

By 2008, the Cedar River had had two 500-year floods within 15 years. Rain falls on a radically changed landscape: plowed fields have replaced tall grass prairies; streams and creeks have been straightened; 90 percent of wetlands have been destroyed; floodplains have been filled and developed; and flows have doubled in just the last half century. Even without factoring in possible effects of climate change, which would exacerbate the problems, the landscape changes will bring more frequent and severe floods. The communities along the Cedar River deserve better, 21st century flood protection solutions to ensure public safety and river health.

The Cedar River, a tributary to the Mississippi River, provides drinking water to more than 120,000 residents, and roughly 530,000 people live and work in the Cedar River watershed. The primary land use in the watershed is agriculture and the river is a popular place for boating and fishing. The river is home to globally rare plant communities and fish and wildlife, including two species of endangered mussels.

In response to the devastating floods of 2008, the Iowa legislature passed a bill in 2009 requiring the Water Resources Coordinating Council to draft recommendations on “a watershed management approach to reduce the adverse impact of future flooding on this state’s residents, businesses, communities, and soil and water quality.” The WRCC submitted those recommendations in November 2009.

Unfortunately, Iowa legislators proved unwilling during the 2010 session to take even baby steps on floodplain management. A bill much weaker than the WRCC recommendations passed the Iowa Senate but never made it out of subcommittee in the Iowa House. The League of Cities, among others, lobbied against the measure. But don’t worry, if any of those cities experience a catastrophic flood, their lobbyists will urge legislators to send plenty of state taxpayer money their way.

I would like to see more cities adopt Davenport’s model for co-existing with a river:

In a nation that spends billions annually on structural flood protection (and billions more when the levees fail) Davenport is the national model for a more cost effective and environmentally responsible approach. We are the largest city in the nation on a major river without a system of levees and pumps for “flood control”. We’ve never had them.  And we don’t want them. Instead of viewing the grand Mississippi as just another storm sewer, we treat it appropriately, with a broad floodplain in (99%) City ownership, now the focal point of our “River Vision” plan. The River Vision plan, developed in conjunction with our southern shore partner, Rock Island, Illinois, is the only bi-state riverfront brownfield redevelopment plan of its kind in the nation. Developed with the extraordinary public input of more than a thousand citizens, the plan is guiding the riverfront revitalization of the historic core of the Quad Cities, and has garnered the nation’s “Most Livable Small City” award from the US Conference of Mayors.  In the historic 2008 Iowa floods, Davenport outperformed every city in the state. We even continued to play baseball at our riverfront ballpark as it became an island in the river. In 2009, our unique approach to floodplain management merited review by the National Academy of Science.  A nine minute video of Davenport’s resilience through the 2008 floods is accessible online.

The University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, in cooperation with other groups, has organized a series of seminars on “The Anatomy of Iowa Floods: Preparing for the Future.” The first of the free seminar series took place in Des Moines in March. After the jump I’ve posted the schedule and agenda for future seminars in Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Waverly this month, and in Mason City and Ames in July.

If you care about protecting Iowa waterways, please consider joining any or all of the following groups: Iowa Environmental Council, Iowa Rivers Revival, Nature Conservancy in Iowa, and the Sierra Club Iowa chapter.

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