U.S. Senate Passes Flood-protection Bill Vital to Cedar Rapids

By Rick Smith, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The city of Cedar Rapids has been working for the five years since its $7-billion flood disaster to convince Congress to provide help for the city to build a flood protection system.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate, on a vote of 83-14, approved the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2013, which authorizes the Secretary of the Army to construct flood protection systems and other waterway improvements across the country.

Both Iowa senators, Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley, voted with the majority.

Congress authorizes most flood protection construction projects via WRDA bills, but it has not passed one since the WRDA bill of 2007, according to Ron Fournier, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in Rock Island, Ill.

As a result, Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz on Wednesday said that securing federal funds to construct flood protection in Cedar Rapids had a long way to go despite Wednesday's Senate action.

"But for us, it's an important step forward in terms of securing long-term flood protection for the city," Pomeranz said of Wednesday's vote.

Mayor Ron Corbett said the large, bipartisan backing for the Senate bill should help the bill's chances in the House of Representatives.

In a statement on Wednesday, Sen. Harkin said he was "pleased" that the Senate bill approved on Wednesday – S. 601 – authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to move forward with the construction of the Cedar Rapids flood control project.

"Of course, now we must work to provide adequate funding for this category of work .... (B)ut I'm encouraged by the passage of today's bill and will continue to work to rebuild areas of Cedar Rapids that require flood protection," Harkin said.

The senator said the bill was important, too, because it will allow improvement projects to continue on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, which he said are vital for drinking water and recreation and to Iowa's farmers and shippers.

Jeff Giertz, communications director for Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo, was quick to note on Wednesday that the "general climate" in Congress, with the Democrats in a majority in the Senate and Republicans in the House, has translated into "slow movement on important pieces of legislation." Even so, he noted that the House Transportation Committee held a meeting on WRDA legislation in April, a move which Giertz said was promising.

In a statement, Braley on Wednesday said the House needs to immediately consider the WRDA legislation now that the Senate has passed its measure.

"This law is incredibly important to Iowans, whether you're a homeowner who depends on the Army Corps of Engineers to provide flood protection, a farmer who relies on the Mississippi River to get your products to worldwide markets or anyone in between," Braley said. "... I'm committed to working to bring people together to send this bill to the President's desk."

Both the city officials and the Corps' Fournier said they knew that the legislation not only must pass the House of Representatives and be signed by the president, but Congress also must appropriate money to pay for the work.

Corbett said the city had been informed in recent weeks that S. 601 would authorize projects with completed Army Corps of Engineers' "chief's reports" and a letter of referral from the Corps to Congress. That list consists of 19 projects, including the Cedar Rapids project, plus three additional ones awaiting letters of referral, according to information provided to the city.

The Corps' plan for Cedar Rapids calls for flood protection on the east side of the Cedar River from the Quaker plant above downtown to the Cargill plant below downtown. The price tag for the plan has been $104 million, which includes $12.5 million in preconstruction engineering and design, work that is now underway though only partially funded. Non-federal funds must pay 25 percent of the preconstruction work and 35 percent of the construction work.

The city's more ambitious "preferred" flood protection plan includes west-side protection, more extensive protection on the east side and more attractive, more expensive removable flood walls through the downtown.

Under federal rule, the Corps was limited to a plan that provided at least as much benefit in protection as the cost to the put the protection in place as determined by a federal formula.

Also on the list of 19 projects is a plan to protect the Fargo, N.D., and Morehead, Minn., metro areas across from each other on the Red River.

"One down, one to go," Pat Zavoral, Fargo's city manager, said on Wednesday upon learning of the Senate vote.

Cedar Rapids' Pomeranz said Wednesday's Senate vote and the positioning of Cedar Rapids to obtain flood protection funds "didn't just happen." He said the city, its Congressional delegation and the Corps have been working for more than four years now to get the city funds should they become available.

"Obviously, this has been a tough time from an economic perspective, but due to the tremendous need in this country, we were able to get Cedar Rapids on the list, which is an achievement," Pomeranz said. "We're in an elite group. It's not over. But it's a step forward."

The 14 who voted against S. 601 included one Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and 13 Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Mario Rubio of Florida.
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