City of Cedar Rapids Starts Digging to Reduce Drought Impact

By Dave Franzman, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Fears of another dry year prompted the Cedar Rapids Water Department to start an unusual project this week. Water department crews are literally digging a new channel for the Cedar River to bring more water within reach of city wells.

The work started Monday at a well field along the Cedar River west of Edgewood Road N.W. The 600-foot-long new channel should recharge an area where one large collector well pumps water to a nearby water treatment plant.

The city of Cedar Rapids does not draw water directly from the Cedar River to provided drinking water for residents. Instead, a series of shallow wells sit very close to the banks of the river. Those 40 to 70-foot deep wells get water from aquifers recharged both by the river and rainwater. But with river levels dropping and not as much rain as normal last year, the available water below ground is dropping too.

Megan Murphy, a communications coordinator for city utilities, said the 10 to 20-foot-wide channel will stretch from the main part of the Cedar River to a back channel close to Ellis Road N.W. The idea is to encourage the river water to soak into the ground in a new location and provide the large collector well in the area with more groundwater to pump.

"We do get some recharge from rain water water—but it hasn't rained. So we need to use the resources we have," Murphy said.

The need for more moisture in the well field is obvious by looking at the bottom of the eight-foot deep trench or channel. The sand below ground is perfectly dry. In a normal year, digging something that deep in the well field would find the bottom filling up with groundwater.

Murphy said the water department couldn't just divert the river on a whim. It took permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—permission that arrived earlier this month.

And Murphy said the cost for all the work is pretty minimal as city projects go. The city is using water department crews and equipment. And a trucking company agreed to haul away all the dirt for free to use as fill. Murphy said the out-of-pocket cost for the city could be as low as $9,000. And the results should be almost immediate.

"This (channel) should be online next week. We should see infiltration into the aquifer pretty quickly and we have another collector well to be built. But that won't be active until this summer," Murphy said.

Murphy said water crews knew the diversion channel would work because they tested the idea last fall by pumping river water into several pits near the collector well. The level of water below ground that was dropping stopped and even rose a couple of feet.

The central Iowa city of Pella also did something similar when the river there carved a new channel near that community's well field. It worked there as well.

Murphy said the city decided to dig the channel now in anticipation of another hot, dry summer in eastern Iowa. But she said all that work may not prevent some eventual watering restrictions for users if a serious drought persists.
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