Congressman Dave Loebsack and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say they can think of more than one thing at the same time when it comes to flood control and water management.
Actually, it’s the ability to think of two or more parts of the same issue — in this case, flood protection and watershed management as part of the larger issue of water management — at the same time, Loebsack and Corps officials say.
The issue was the topic of discussion Friday as second-termer Loebsack, D- Mount Vernon, plied the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids in a small boat with Lt. Col. Michael Clarke, district commander of the Army Corps’ Rock Island, Ill., district office, Dennis Hamilton, the Corps; district chief of project management, and Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer.
Loebsack and the others were taking a look from the river back toward shore to get a feel for the damage caused by the June 2008 flood and a feel for how a new flood-protection system in the city might change the river and the shoreline.
There were a couple other small boats in the mix, too, so that TV news crews and a newspaper photographer could better get photos and video of Loebsack and the Corps officials and Elgin getting a look around.
Of course, this was something of a dog-and-pony show, but it is one that might help bring the cows home sooner than otherwise would be possible.
Loebsack made a little news just by questions he asked. What would happen if Congress quickly appropriated funding to build a flood-protection system even before the necessary feasibility study was completed? he asked.
In that one question, the Congressman gave the impression it might be possible to secure money within the two years it is supposed to take for a feasibility study. Local officials have been preparing for the fact that it could take eight to 15 years to get a flood-protection system in place.
In the 40-or-so minute river trip, Loebsack and the Corps officials were asked if it might not make sense to set aside plans on a flood-protection system for Cedar Rapids for now and focus on what changes can be made in the vast Cedar River watershed above the city.
Loebsack said it was necessary to establish a watershed management program over time to make sure flood mitigation works.
The Corps’ Hamilton noted that, in fact, the Corps has now begun a watershed study on the Cedar and Iowa rivers as part of the Corps’ Upper Mississippi River Comprehensive Plan.
Such a study won’t result in the call to build a new, giant reservoir upstream someplace, which he said require the flooding of too much land at too great a cost.
Hamilton also said improving the management of the watershed was needed, not just to help with lessening the risk of flood, but to improve water quality, enhance natural habitats and to help better use recreational resources.
Hamilton said improvements in the watershed above the city can only do so much for flood protection.
“It’s not realistic to expect flooding in Cedar Rapids to be preventable solely due to watershed changes,” Hamilton said.
“It’s an important aspect” he said of watershed management. “It can reduce flooding in the future, and we certainly want to make sure that the watershed is properly managed so flooding doesn’t ever get any worse than it is now, and hopefully it gets even a little better.
“But to expect watershed improvements by themselves will prevent flooding in Cedar Rapids, we don’t feel like it is a realistic plan.”
Better watershed management is one piece of the larger approach to flood prevention, which also includes moving people out of flood plains and building levees and floodwalls where it makes sense, Hamilton said.
The Corps’ Cedar Rapids flood-protection feasibility study, as now conceived, will be complete in draft form by the summer of 2010 and in final form by February or March of 2011.
Estimates have been as high as $1 billion to build a system of levees and floodwalls to protect Cedar Rapids against a flood the size of the 2008 one.