Cedar Rapids gets $264 million flood protection plan approval

Iowa City, Coralville and Dubuque also get Iowa Flood Mitigation Board approvals

Rick Smith
Published: December 4 2013 | 12:59 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 12:27 am in
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DES MOINES — Mayor Ron Corbett thumped his knee nine times Wednesday, as each of the nine members of the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board voted in favor of Cedar Rapids’ request for $264 million in state funds over 20 years to help build a flood protection system on both sides of the Cedar River.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and Council members Ann Poe and Justin Shields, sitting next to Corbett in Room 102 of the Statehouse, erupted in joy as the board’s vote became official.

“Good job,” Poe said to Corbett, a one-time speaker of the Iowa House who helped conceptualize the state sales-tax funding mechanism for communities in need of flood protection. The Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad signed off on the plan in 2012.

“For those of us who love Cedar Rapids, today we can now protect her,” Poe said after the state board’s meeting adjourned. “And this will last for generations to come. It’s monumental and historic.”

“Yesterday, long-term flood protection was a question and we really didn’t know if it would happen or not,” Pomeranz said after the meeting. “And today, we can say we will have flood protection for the city of Cedar Rapids, which is critical to every Cedar Rapidian.”

Poe added the timing of the state funding award couldn’t be better as Congress this week is meeting in a conference committee to consider flood-protection projects in Cedar Rapids and other U.S. cities.

“I hope Congress takes a look at what we’ve done here today as a state and as a city to protect Cedar Rapids,” Poe said.

OTHER CITIES GET FUNDING

Wednesday also was a great day for flood protection in Iowa City, Coralville, Dubuque, Waverly and Storm Lake. Those cities also had their funding requests approved. Dubuque’s was the second largest award, $98.5 million over 20 years.

Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett, who is stepping down after 36 years as a mayor or City Council member in Coralville, said the state grant of $9.77 million will help his city protect itself, so it doesn’t see more than 200 businesses and 400 homes flooded again as they did in 2008.

Geoff Fruin, assistant to the city manager in Iowa City, told the state board that the award of $8.5 million to his city was “truly a defining moment for Iowa City.” He said the award’s impact “will certainly carry on for generations.”

Each city needed federal and local funds to qualify for state funds, which could not exceed 50 percent of a project’s cost.

Mark Schouten, board chairman and administrator of the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management, termed the Cedar Rapids project and funding request “the granddaddy of them all.”

SHARING KNOWLEDGE IN NASHVILLE

With the significant state funding award in hand, Corbett, Pomeranz and Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer, are flying Sunday to Nashville for a demonstration Monday of the system of removable flood walls that protect the Grand Ole Opry, which was hit hard by a flood in 2010.

“It’s important now that we start looking at various systems and see how they work,” Corbett said.

The city’s interest is to incorporate removable flood walls in certain parts of the proposed seven miles of flood protection — in the downtown, Kingston Village and Czech Village, for instance — so the Cedar River isn’t hidden from view by high permanent flood walls. At the same time, the Army Corps of Engineers is pushing the city not to use too many removable walls because they take time to assemble in the event of a flood and cost more to maintain.

“So we have to make sure we’re not overreaching,” Corbett said.

HOW THE FUNDING WILL WORK

The state flood-protection funds awarded to Cedar Rapids and the five other cities will be generated by a portion of the incremental growth in state sales tax collected in each city over as much as 20 years.

Cedar Rapids officials have said the $264 million in state funds will cover 46 percent of the total flood protection cost of $570 million. That figure is for a both-sides-of-the-river protection plan that includes:

--$117 million in federal funds the city already has received for buyouts and other federal flood mitigation measures

-- $78 million in expected funds from Congress to help build flood protection on the east side of the Cedar River

-- $110 million in yet-to-be-spent city funds

The total price tag factors in the cost of inflation over 20 years.

Cedar Rapids officials said the first state dollars will come to the city in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2014. Corbett said among the top priorities will be to conduct engineering and design work for west-side flood protection as the Army Corps of Engineers has begun to do on the east side of the river.

Elgin has said the city will use $9 million already in hand from the federal Community Development Block Grant program in 2014 to begin flood protection north of the Quaker Co. plant on the east side of the river and to heighten the protection at the Quaker plant to the 2008 flood level.

Construction is slated for 2015 on the west side of the river in Kingston Village from Interstate 380 to the riverfront amphitheater, which was built to be part of the flood protection system across from downtown.

The Cedar Rapids project is planned in multiple phases over as much as 20 years.

‘GRANDDADDY OF THEM ALL’

In total, the Flood Mitigation Board on Wednesday awarded $390 million in state funds, about 65 percent of the total it has to award.

Cedar Falls, Council Bluffs and a Des Moines area project also now have told the board that they are considering applying for state funds.

The board spent considerable time Wednesday discussing Winterset’s request. That city does not anticipate a large increase in sales tax revenue to fund its project. As a result, the board must fund it from a separate fund created for smaller communities without a sufficient incremental increase in sales tax. However, the Legislature has not provided any money for that fund.

“Rain falls evenly on big and small communities,” Schouten said, and the board decided to point that out to the Legislature.

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