Sequestration may hurt Cedar Rapids flood-protection plans

Army Corps of Engineers unsure how cuts will impact Eastern Iowa projects

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March 28, 2014 | 1:29 pm

By J.T. Rushing, correspondent

Editor’s note: One in a series of stories on flood protection, a topic that The Gazette considers a content priority for 2013.

Five years after record floods devastated Cedar Rapids, funding for flood-prevention plans on the east side of the Cedar River are facing a cloudy future as a result of congressional cuts to the federal budget.

Congressman Bruce Braley does not have to look far in his new district office in downtown Cedar Rapids to be reminded of the damage the 2008 flood brought to the city — a large, “vivid” photograph of the flooding hangs just inside the front door.

“It was epic,” said Braley, who lives upriver in Waterloo but whose redrawn district now includes Cedar Rapids. “I have very vivid memories of getting on a helicopter and flying over the river corridor and just being shocked at the widespread devastation.

“People need to understand that the fund these projects are paid through was cut by 11 percent from the 2012 level. That’s a dramatic reduction, so going forward and trying to get support for this project will be tougher because there are now fewer resources for these projects around the country.”

Projects threatened

Based on Gazette interviews with Cedar Rapids city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers and all four members of Eastern Iowa’s congressional delegation — Reps. Braley and Dave Loebsack, and Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin — the various projects fall into two categories: The Army Corps project for the river, which faces immediate peril, and a long list of 350 flood-recovery projects pending before the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which are protected for now.

But no project is 100 percent safe because of the so-called “sequestration,” or federal budget cuts that became a reality in March.

The most threatened project is perhaps the most important — protecting the Cedar River from another flood of similar size.

Cedar Rapids’ flood-protection plan currently is in a pre-construction, engineering and design work phase. A $9.7 million feasibility study has long since finished, the cost of which the city split evenly with the federal government.

Now, the city of Cedar Rapids is paying $3.1 million of the current engineering/design work cost, with federal funding contributing the remaining $9.3 million — but that federal funding is now up in the air.

The Army Corps is expecting a budget cut of 5 percent to 10 percent, and Corps officials don’t yet know which projects would be affected by such a cut.

The Army Corps had been using funds carried over from the 2012 fiscal year to keep the project afloat, but that money has now run out, and there are no other funds to keep the work going.

Ron Fournier, corporate communications chief for the Army Corps’ Rock Island District, which has jurisdiction over Cedar Rapids, said the project’s future will be clarified once Army Corps officials know for sure how much their budget is being cut.

“Any single project that we work on right now can be affected, depending on how much they cut,” Fournier said. “But if we don’t get any money for ongoing engineering and design work, there won’t be any work. Right now, there’s no funding.”

Harkin said the threat to the Cedar River project proves the need for revenue increases as well as spending cuts as Congress works to solve its budgetary problems.

“The Corps plays an important role in Iowa — designing and implementing flood control and protection efforts and ensuring residents are safe,” Harkin said. “Despite this role, it appears that the arbitrary and across-the-board cuts known as sequestration will impact Corps projects in a variety of ways.”

More trouble ahead

Even if funding survives for the C.R. project’s current phase, more trouble lies ahead. The $101.1 million actual construction costs of the east-side plan, of which Cedar Rapids would pay $35.4 million, has not yet been authorized by Congress.

It is part of a massive Water Resources Development Act that authorizes construction costs — but if Congress doesn’t pass the legislation, the project may stop in its tracks.

Cedar Rapids also is pursuing a flood-protection plan for the west side of the Cedar River, but the Army Corps is not involved with that project.

Joe O’Hern, the city’s executive administrator of development services, said the city is working closely with its congressional delegation to press its case before Congress, and is also looking for local and state funding.

“It was one of the largest disasters in the country, and we’re still recovering from that after all these years. It is a very, very important project for the city,” O’Hern said. “On a national level, concern over cutting the budget and reducing spending has outweighed other considerations. We understand the need to be fiscally responsible, but we hope they would look at where they make these cuts.”

Among others, Loebsack sent a similar message.

“A promise was made to the people of Iowa to help them recover. While we must deal with the fiscal situation facing our nation, we cannot do it at the expense of those who were hurt by the floods and where promises were made,” he said.

Other projects

In early March, Cedar Rapids city officials went to Washington to meet with FEMA and press their case for several projects in particular that have been on appeal with the agency because funds were initially approved and then withheld.

The major projects under appeal involve some $16 million of costs for work on the incinerator at the city’s Water Pollution Control plant and to place debris from the Sinclair plant demolition into the landfill.

There are 350 other FEMA projects that are not expected to be affected by the sequestration process because the funds for those projects already have been appropriated.

However, since FEMA is still responding to needs from Hurricane Sandy’s destruction in densely populated areas of New York and New Jersey, the agency’s administrator recently testified before a House subcommittee that there are no long-term guarantees. O’Hern also said unforeseen future situations could also force the city’s funding share of some projects to rise.

Grassley told The Gazette he believes the Obama administration and FEMA can handle the funding cuts without too much trouble.

“There are ways that the president and the administration can manage and mitigate the impact of the sequester,” he said.

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