The river that flows through the heart of this city, breaking it two years ago, has been deemed the nation’s fifth-most endangered river, primarily because of poor flood-management practices.
Outdated practices have increased flood risk along the Cedar, endangering the public and the river’s health, the river advocacy group American Rivers said in releasing its 2010 list.
With the Army Corps of Engineers engaged in a study of the Cedar and Iowa river basins, flood management is at a critical crossroads, with an opportunity to strengthen flood protection while improving water quality and fish and wildlife habitat and providing increased economic and recreational benefits to local communities.
While most such designations would be cause for alarm, local officials regard it as an opportunity to rally resources and public opinion for corrective measures.
“It will heighten public awareness of the problem and hopefully accelerate the debate,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett said.
State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the designation “is not the news we want to hear, but it is the truth.”
The designation, Hogg said, presents an opportunity to make the case nationally for resources and locally for responsible planning and action.
American Rivers called on Congress and the Iowa Legislature to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to prioritize lower cost, non-structural flood-management solutions in the Cedar River basin.
Acknowledging that flood walls and levees are needed to protect lives and property in heavily populated areas like Cedar Rapids, the group said natural, non-structural solutions, like protecting wetlands and restoring floodplains, are cost-effective and can have multiple benefits.
“They may prefer non-structural solutions, but they understand it has to be a combination,” Corbett said.
Flood walls and levees should be part of the solution “where absolutely necessary to protect high-value infrastructure,” said Susan Heathcote, water projects manager for the Iowa Environmental Council.
The majority of the watershed is agricultural, she added, and it makes sense to adopt management practices that allow farmland to absorb more water and to slow and reduce runoff following heavy storms.
Sean McMahon, Iowa director of the Nature Conservancy, said it is appropriate to pursue levees in Cedar Rapids as long as they are complemented by upstream non-structural improvements, such as restored wetlands, retention basins, buffer strips and perennial vegetation.
McMahon encouraged Iowans to participate in the Corps of Engineers study of the Iowa-Cedar basin by writing the Corps and their congressional representatives and attending public meetings.
Indian Creek Nature Center Director Rich Patterson said he believes building levees and flood walls in Cedar Rapids is “a stupid idea” that will only instill a false sense of security that encourages building in flood-prone areas.
“What we need to do as a society,” he said, “is reconnect the river with its flood plain and encourage infiltration of rain water rather than rapid runoff to creeks and rivers, with all the flooding, erosion and pollution that entails.”
For report details, see www.americanrivers.org/endangeredrivers