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Iowa Conservationists Call For More Flooding Protection Funding

The Cedar River inundated downtown Cedar Rapids in June 2008. In the years since, conservationists and government officials have made changes they hope will lessen the impacts of future floods.

Conservationists say they’ve made progress in the 10 years since historic floods hit eastern Iowa. Now they're calling for even more investment in flood protection. 

Since 2008, cities have bought up vulnerable and flood-prone properties, updated floodwalls and storm sewers, built new water pumps and expanded their temporary flood protection measures. Homeowners have installed rain gardens and permable pavement to improve drainage. And farmers have restored ponds and wetlands and added acres of cover crops.

Looking at the Cedar River watershed alone, Mary Beth Stevenson with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says "the game has changed" when it comes to flood mitigation conservation practices in rural and urban communities.

"We've gotten a number of funding sources that have come online in the past 10 years that are helping support a lot of these projects. And our municipalites are also starting to set mony aside, set funds aside for citizens to help them pay for these differnt practices on their own property," Stevenson said.

She shared her findings with a meeting of the Cedar River Watershed Coalition, which includes researchers, farmers and conservationists across the region.

"If we can make the investments in flood hazard mitigation that we need to make, we can protect our cities, we can protect our farms." - State Senator Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids)

But researchers say flooding in Iowa is still a multi-billion dollar problem, with flooding impacts having touched every county in the state. In analyzing flood-related presidential disaster declarations over the past three decades, University of Iowa researcher Antonio Arenas found the state has suffered nearly $18 billion worth of losses, including $13.5 billion in direct damage to property and $4.1 billion in crop losses.

"All the counties have been impacted," Arenas said. "All of us have been impacted by important precipitation events that led to important flooding events."

Iowa communities have benefitted from local, state, federal and private funding to make changes. For those hesitant to increase that funding, Arenas is urging them to consider the losses the state has already sustained. 

"I would argue that when it comes to analyzing the benefits of spending money on conservation, they need to be analyzed against this," Arenas said, referring to the $17.6 billion worth of damages, which he considers a conservative estimate. "So the cost of doing nothing is not zero. It is at very least that number."

Focusing on the Cedar River alone, University of Iowa professor Larry Weber estimates it would take $672 million to address flood mitigation in the watershed, and another $672 million to address water quality concerns, a related issue tied to farm runoff. 

"The cost of doing nothing is not zero." - Antonio Arenas, University of Iowa Researcher

"We've got to get funding across all sources," said Weber, who helps lead the Iowa Flood Center. "The landowner, the tenant have to be involved, corporate agriculture needs to be involved, state and federal resources..."

At a time when many in the Republican-led legislature are focused on promoting economic development through tax cuts, Democratic State Senator Rob Hogg wants more buy in from state lawmakers and other critics.

“And they might say, well that costs too much," Hogg said. But whether they support large-scale flood protection efforts statewide, Hogg says Iowans are already paying for the damage.

"If we can make the investments in flood hazard mitigation that we need to make, we can…protect our cities, we can protect our farms," he said.  "And by the way, in the meantime we’re creating a lot of jobs and doing a lot of investment throughout the watershed.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter