Cedar Rapids vote Tuesday would fund 'preferred' flood protection plan

Extending local-option tax at issue

  • Photos
April 3, 2014 | 1:39 pm

The city of Cedar Rapids is asking voters Tuesday to approve a 10-year extension of its 1 percent local-option sales tax to pay for flood protection. Here’s a look at what the city would do with the money.

PROTECION FOR BOTH SIDES OF RIVER

In November 2008, just four months after the June 2008 flood, the City Council approved a “preferred” flood protection plan for both sides of the city. The City Council has changed some of its members in 2010 and this year, but the plan for a system of levees, flood walls, removable flood walls, gates and pumping stations still has council support. The plan comes with flexibility as to the system’s exact alignment, council members say.

City Council member Monica Vernon said the plan, which she calls “a very possible plan,” has provided the city with a “very good idea” of what a flood protection system will look like and needs to be. At the same time, it helped residents and businesses in possible reach of floodwaters to make decisions about their future.

The plan is in constant use at City Hall and has played a central role in the city’s property buyout program. The city will have more than 1,000 lots in its possession as part of the buyout program. However, it will only promote redevelopment for now on lots are outside the 100-year flood plain and outside the construction zone set aside in the plan for the flood protection system.

Vernon says the city needed a well-conceived flood protection plan to pursue federal and state funding to help pay for a flood protection system.

“Of course we have a plan,” she said. “It’s been posted on the city Web page for three years,” added Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer. It’s at http://www.cedar-rapids.org/city-news/announcements/pages/floodmanagementsystem.aspx

WHERE DID THE PLAN COME FROM?

Vernon, a member of the council at the time of the plan’s adoption, said the city’s flood protection plan came to be for one reason — the City Council concluded that Cedar Rapids was at risk to flood again. Remember the news stories from 40 years ago, she said, when experts predicted a historic flood for Cedar Rapids. She said some flood victims in 2008 remembered. Why didn’t you protect us? some asked of the city then, Vernon said.

The city’s flood protection plan became known as “preferred” in large part because of how it came to be. It emerged, Vernon said, as the best of dozens of possible options that consulting engineers, hydrologists, landscape designers, the Army Corps of Engineers, the city’s own engineering and development professionals and the City Council sorted through in the first  months after the flood of 2008. Three public forums, Vernon said, were held along the way to give the public a chance to weigh in on what the best system for the city might be.

 The experts and the Corps rejected numerous ideas, such as huge reservoirs upstream, canals around the city and river dredging, as either prohibitively costly or ineffective or both, Vernon said. An option that called for flood walls at the river and one that would have established protection farther from the river lost out to a middle-option, the preferred plan, she said.

DETERMINING THE PRICE

Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer, says the cost estimate of $375 million for the city’s preferred plan comes from “professionals who are experienced in this, not by city staff or inexperienced people.”

Plan critics have called the city’s plan a “Cadillac” one. Among the most vocal critics, 2005 City Council candidate Tim Pugh, has said the city’s plan comes with fancy streets, expensive parks and trails and leaves “large sections of the city unprotected.”

Elgin and City Council member Vernon say such criticism is incorrect.

Elgin said the preferred plan is “not an economy special and it’s not an extremely expensive plan with a lot of frills.” The plan does not include money for extras, though the plan will replace streets and trails in the way of the flood protection system, he said.

“When we talk about trying to have something sustainable that looks reasonably decent, not really fancy, those are the recommended budget numbers,” Elgin said. “We expect to work within that budget, and if can be reduced, it will be reduced.”

THE ARMY CORPS' ROLE

The Army Corps of Engineers, which helped the city develop its preferred plan, then used the work that went into the city’s plan to speed up the Corps’ work on its own required flood protection feasibility study, which the Corps released in mid-2010.

In the end, the Corps’ rules require it to support only flood protection that protects an amount of property value at least equal to the cost to provide the protection. As a result, the Corps’ benefit-cost ratio allowed it to recommend just a partial east-side protection system for the city. The plan now has been forwarded to Congress.

The Corps’ east-side plan, which is now in the process of pre-construction engineering and design at a cost of $12.3 million, “substantially” conforms to the city’s preferred plan for the portion of the east side of the river that the Corps’ plan covers, the city’s Elgin said.

The Corps’ plan stops at the north end of the Quaker property, while the city’s preferred plan calls for flood protection to be extended north to tie into Wenig Road NE and J Avenue NE to protect the city’s water treatment plant and areas flooded around Cedar Lake and near Coe College.

CAN CITY'S PLAN CHANGE?

Yes, said the city’s Vernon and Elgin.

“I do not anticipate for it to be greatly modified, but I do anticipate some modifications,” Vernon said.

Vernon and Elgin said it cost significant money — the Corps’ final design work on the river’s east side is costing $12.5 million — to pin down an exact alignment for a flood protection system, money it doesn’t make sense for the city to spend on final design of the non-Corps parts of the city’s preferred plan until the city knows it has some money to actually build that part of the system, Vernon said.

Elgin pointed to the Corps’ current design work, noting that the Corps has moved the city’s preferred plan and the Corps’ own initial design closer to the river below the downtown. In addition, the Corps’ designers have told the city that flood protection at the African American Museum of Iowa at the 12th Avenue bridge costs about the same to run through the museum property or to run between the river and the museum.

Elgin noted that the city has talked about saving historic buildings on both sides of the river and building flood protection to accommodate that desire.

“You just have to have that flexibility,” Elgin said. … “The preferred plan did not identify a specific line that was cast in stone. It identified a construction zone, understanding that would provide some flexibility for the design process to get the most functional and most cost-effective solution for that flood system.”

TIMELINE

Design on the Corps’ portion on east-side protection, which began almost a year ago, will take until sometime in 2013 to complete if  funding continues to come in for it. Construction could begin in 2014 and take at least three construction seasons if funding is available, the Corps reports. The city’s design work on west-side protection would take 18 to 24 months. Construction would follow and could proceed along with east-side construction, the city reports.

 OTHER IDEAS FOR FLOOD PROTECTION

Greg Vail, who has returned to his house on First Street NW a stone’s toss from the river, and other opponents of the current proposal to extend the sales tax have come up with the outlines of a “citizens’ plan” for flood protection that would cost much less than the city’s preferred plan. It calls, in part, for creating flood protection for individual homes, business and city blocks with a “highly reinforced, permanent fence structure” that can change from retaining, privacy or security fence to flood wall in a matter of hours.

In recent days, We Can Do Better CR, which opposes the tax extension, now says it would agree to a five-year extension rather than a 10-year extension. Included in its proposal is a requirement that local dollars for east side protection be limited and that the city dredge the river.

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Is there other feedback and/or ideas you want to share with us? Tell us here.

 close  don't show again