Basset hound, videos to help on Cedar Rapids garbage, dam lessons

City hopes initiatives will better inform citizens

Rick Smith
Published: April 5 2014 | 6:30 am - Updated: 7 April 2014 | 3:13 pm in

CEDAR RAPIDS — Two basics of life here continue to flummox enough residents that city officials are spending $5,000 to $6,000 on two animated videos to help unlock the mysteries.

The first video lesson will feature the 5-in-1 Dam across the Cedar River just above downtown, a 35-year-old structure accused in some corners even today as doing too little to lessen the impact of the city’s flood disaster of 2008.

For the second tutorial, Megan Murphy, the city’s utilities communications coordinator, has come up with the idea of employing a basset hound she is calling Lucy to stand between the city’s garbage, recycling and yard-waste containers to show residents how far apart they should place them along the street for pickup.

"We need about three feet between the containers, and a basset is more elongated," Murphy said of why the basset is the right breed for the job. "We had a basset growing up, and her name was Lucy," she added.

The city’s solid waste operation is mostly automated now, so one driver operates an automatic arm that picks up the container and deposits the contents in the truck. However, the driver must get out of the truck, reposition containers when they are too close to one another and then get back into the truck to operate the pickup arm. In the meantime, the truck is idling and the pickup operation is slowing down.

"So if everybody leaves room for Lucy, it makes our collection a lot more efficient," Murphy said.

Steve Hershner, the city’s utilities director, said the Utilities Department is trying "innovative approaches like Lucy" to give residents a visual explanation of a basic city service.

Hershner said he has spent time on the city’s solid-waste pickup routes, and he estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the time the containers are not placed properly.

Harder to quantify is the amount of misperception about the operation of the 5-in-1 Dam, misperception that stems from the city’s 2008 flood and is alive and well as the city and the Cedar River enter another potential flood season.

"I would say that is absolutely accurate," Tariq Baloch, the city’s water plant manager, said this week about the dam, public confusion and the need to provide some public education about it.

Firstly, the dam is so named because it is part of a structure with five functions: It carries northbound and southbound lanes of Interstate 380 and E and F avenues and has the dam at the structure’s base.

Baloch continued:

The dam consists of 10 gates, six visible to the eye and four in the middle that are submerged and not visible.

The 10th gate, on the east side of the dam, had been operated in the past to regulate water into the city’s hydroelectric plant, which is disabled and mothballed and so this gate remains closed.

The Cedar River is always flowing over the four submerged gates, which are positioned to establish a pool of water above the dam that is about 13.5 feet deep at the upstream side of the dam.

These four submerged gates automatically operate, lowering and raising so a consistent water depth is maintained in the river above the dam to support aquatic life and recreation.

As river water continues to rise above the dam, the submerged middle gates to lower and the river level below the dam begins to rise.

The middle gates are fully lowered when the river level below the dam reaches 10 feet deep as measured by a gauge near the Eighth Avenue bridge.

The 10-foot mark activates the "action" phase in the city’s flood-response plan, and Baloch said city crews at the water treatment plant closely watch river-level predictions and prepare, if necessary, to raise the five visible "slide"gates.

Baloch said once the Water Division concludes that the river will climb to 12 feet below the dam — which is the "flood stage" for the city — city crews go to the dam and raise gates 1,2, 3, 8 and 9 out of the water’s way. Each of these visible steel gates is 15 feet high and 60 feet wide, and each takes about 90 minutes to raise, one at a time. That is done by electric motor under the direction of two workers, who stand on a fenced-in corridor on the dam.

Most importantly, said Baloch: Once the river level reaches 12 feet below the dam, and all the gates above and below water are opened, the dam ceases to function as a dam. It then is like a street or bridge,  simply a structure for water to flow past, he said.

Any moderate to significant flooding in Cedar Rapids requires the river to climb a few to several feet higher than 12 feet. According to the National Weather Service, moderate flood stage is 14 feet, major, 16 feet.

The river’s fifth highest crest at Cedar Rapids reached 19.27 feet on April 4, 1993; its eighth highest, of 18.3 feet, came on May 27, 2004;0 and its highest crest was 31.12 feet on June 13, 2008.

Baloch said the city operated the 5-in-1 Dam in the city’s flood disaster of 2008 just as it always has, and he said the role of the dam to hold back or gradually release water stopped when the river below the dam reached 12, long before the river’s crest on June 13, 2008.

As importantly, he said the city’s Water Division had or has little leeway in how it operates the 5-in-1 Dam. The engineering design of the dam and the highway and road structure above it requires that the visible gates at the dam stay in place until the river below the dam climbs to 10 feet, at which time the four submerged middle gates are entirely open. The engineering design also requires that the five visible gates (the visible gate at the hydro plant stays closed now) be raised once the river level reaches 12 below the dam, he said.

The city’s Murphy said the visible gates all don’t need to come up if the forecast is for the river to stay above 10 feet but below 12 feet. All the visible gates are back in place, holding back water, as the river below the dam once again drops to 10 feet.

Murphy said there is a public misperception about the way the visible gates operate and about the "very existence" of the four submerged gates in the middle of the dam.

She said the visible gates are of particular concern because that’s what people see. "Why aren’t you raising those gates? I know they can be raised, why aren’t they up," Murphy said people have said.

She said she also hopes the city’s new online video about the dam drives home the point that the dam’s four submerged middle gates are working well before the time comes to raise the visible gates.

"Even when you don’t see it, there are things happening to help flooding," she said.

Look for the dam video on the city’s Web page by the end of May, and the Lucy video by mid-May.

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