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Congress Moves Cedar Rapids Flood Protection Forward

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CEDAR RAPIDS — City leaders were overjoyed Friday as they reported that a joint U.S. House-Senate conference committee has approved a final version of federal legislation that authorizes Congress to support $73.13 million in federal spending for Cedar Rapids flood protection.

Last year, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly and in bipartisan fashion approved their own versions of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), and the House-Senate Conference Committee now has approved a final version that melds the two bills into one, city officials said.

Both houses of Congress are expected to vote on the legislation, which positions projects for funding consideration, as soon as early next week, Angie Charipar, assistant to the city manager and the city’s legislative specialist, said Friday.

The 500-plus-page bill specifically identifies nine “flood risk management” projects, including the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids.

Congressional funding must follow what the current legislation achieves — project authorization.

“You can’t get funded until you’re authorized,” Mayor Ron Corbett said Friday.

He and City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said the expected Congressional approval of the conference report is a triumph, which Pomeranz said seemed like a “dream” immediately after the city’s June 2008 flood disaster and even as recently as three or so years ago.

He and Corbett credited Iowa’s U.S. senators, Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley, and the rest of the state’s Congressional delegation for their support of the Cedar Rapids project.

“Without our strong representation in Washington, D.C., we would still be talking about the need and wondering how we would ever get it done,” Pomeranz said. “We’re beyond that now. We know we can get this done. We know that the dollars in the long term will be there for this project.”

Corbett said he gives Grassley and Harkin an “A+” and he said Iowa’s Congressmen showed “unified” support for Cedar Rapids flood protection.

“I think you look back over the last six years, and you look at the hurdles that we had to get over to where we are today, and I think a lot of people would have said the chances are really low to get anything done,” the mayor said. “And here we are, about at the end of the journey, and we really have come a long way.”

Both sides of the river

In the very first weeks after the city’s June 2008 flood disaster, the Cedar Rapids City Council began an effort to come up with a flood protection plan even as it worked to recover from the flood. With the help of consultants, the Army Corps of Engineers and public input, the city had a “preferred” plan in place in late 2008.

After its own lengthy study, the Corps in the late summer of 2010 recommended a no-frills protection system for only the east side of the city. In early 2011, the Corps sent its plan to Congress.

Proposed Congressional funding actually will comprise the smallest of three funding sources for a both-sides-of-the-river protection system for Cedar Rapids.

Last December, the state’s new Flood Mitigation Board, which the city of Cedar Rapids’s legislative proposal helped to create, awarded the city $264 million over 20 years for flood protection. The city also says that it already has spent $117.7 million on the project, most of which has been in federal and state disaster payments, and that the city will contribute another $110 million over time.

Corbett has called the city’s flood protection project a three-legged stool, with federal, state and city money needed to bring it to reality.

“We’ve put all three legs in place, and now we can move forward confidently to build flood protection,” Corbett said.

Jill Gerber, spokeswoman for Sen. Grassley, said on Friday that the WRRDA conference report could come to a vote in the Senate next week, but she said the earliest that the Senate would consider funding for projects in the WRRDA bill would be in the federal fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2015.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Sen. Harkin said he is “proud” to have secured “this much-needed assistance” for water-related projects across Iowa.

“The flood recovery and protection activities authorized by this bill are especially crucial in Iowa today as we experience more frequent and severe flooding from heavy precipitation events,” Harkin said. “... I look forward to passing this legislation and providing the city of Cedar Rapids the resources it needs to keep residences and businesses safe from future flooding.”

Jill Gerber, spokeswoman for Sen. Grassley, said on Friday that the WRRDA conference report could come to a vote in the Senate next week, but she said the earliest that the Senate would consider funding for projects in the WRRDA bill would be in the federal fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2015.

On Friday, Rep. Bruce Braley’s office said it expected the House to vote on the WRRDA conference report as soon as early next week.

“Every family and business in Cedar Rapids knows that flooding is a constant threat — especially this time of year,” Braley said in a statement. “This flood protection will give Cedar Rapids residents some additional peace of mind, and nothing is more important to me than that.”

The city of Cedar Rapids is in the process of beginning construction on its flood protection system. The project’s first phase will raise the flood wall at the Quaker Oats plant to protect against a flood of the 2008 flood’s magnitude.

Pomeranz said the city also is in the process of hiring an engineering design to help design flood protection on both sides of the river. The Army Corps of Engineers has been working on the design of east-side protection for the last few years.

Backing of 35 other water-resources projects for needs such as hurricane risk reduction, navigation improvements and environmental restoration also are specifically mentioned in the Congressional conference committee report on the WRRDA legislation.

Those projects include $14.99 million for project modifications on the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers in Central Iowa.

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