Iowa cities struggling to afford necessary improvements to protect against flooding could get some help from the state under a plan that aims to safeguard areas of economic or historical significance.
A Senate appropriations subcommittee gave preliminary approval on Feb. 8 to a flood mitigation program that could provide up to $30 million in matching funds for local flood-prevention projects such as levees and flood walls.
The bill also cleared the panel last year but stalled in the Senate after a local option sales tax that would have provided local matching funds failed in Cedar Rapids, the city pushing hardest measure. Advocates say that killed any sense of urgency for approving the bill, but they believe flooding last summer along the Missouri River has brought that urgency back and broadened interest.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett says such a fund is needed for his city, which suffered major flooding in 2008, and others faced with flood threats.
“For communities that go through this devastation, certainly they want to rebuild their communities and plan for the future,” Corbett said. “They just do not have the resources to do it alone, and the state needs to step up and help. And I think state legislators realize that the state has a role.”
Cities could apply for state money from a flood mitigation board, consisting of experts and leaders from various state agencies. Local applicants that prove their projects have economic or historical significance then must match any state money approved.
Corbett says it will cost $375 million to protect Cedar Rapids from flooding by the Cedar River, but the Army Corps of Engineers has only approved about $65 million in federal funds for a project on the river’s east side.
Corbett says without state help, the city will remain vulnerable.
“There’s just not enough local money to build the west side,” Corbett said. “We really do need to get the state’s support from that standpoint.”
Leaders said a study released Wednesday showing the state’s 10 largest cities generate a major portion of jobs and revenue in the state is further evidence that it makes sense to protect those areas.
“This is not just a problem for cities, but a problem for the entire state,” said Ames Mayor Ann Campbell, whose city suffered severe flooding in 2010.
Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan noted flooding along the Missouri River last year closed major roadways, affecting economic development not just in his city but in the state and region.
“If we have an opportunity to mitigate a problem in the future, that helps the whole state,” Hanafan said. “It makes sense to cooperate.”
And Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said the nature of flooding makes it necessary for the state to be involved.
“What Des Moines does affects Ottumwa. What Waterloo does affects Cedar Rapids,” Cownie said. “So we are all in this together.”
Sen. Rob Hogg, a Cedar Rapids Democrat pushing the measure, said the $30 million a year in spending the bill authorizes may seem like a lot. But compared to the $10 billion in damages the state suffered due to flooding in 2008 alone, it’s not much.
“You’re going to run into situations where cities and counties need — not want — need state assistance,” Hogg said. “I think without the state being a partner, basic flood protection won’t happen.”
Sen. Bob Dvorsky, a Coralville Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said helping local governments prevent future flooding is a priority for him.
And Sen. Bill Dix, a Shell Rock Republican who voted to move the measure forward, said it’s a recognition of the long-term impact on the state of not addressing flooding.
Corbett, a Republican who served 14 years in the Iowa House, said flooding on the Missouri River this summer has demonstrated to legislators and city leaders that other communities can benefit from the measure, too.
“I think there’s really a desire by the legislature to do something for the state when it comes to flood protection,” Corbett said.
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