News Column

Cedar River rises faster than flood protection, but help's coming

June 24, 2014

By Rick Smith, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa



June 24--CEDAR RAPIDS -- Water in the Cedar River is climbing to a significantly high yet still-manageable level for the second year in a row -- a barely needed reminder of the city's historic flood disaster of 2008 and of the city's promise to build a new flood protection system.

Rivers can rise faster than flood levees and walls, but the construction of flood protection for Cedar Rapids remains a sure thing, Mayor Ron Corbett said Monday.

"Yes, it is certain," said Corbett, who has led the city's successful effort to secure state funding and federal support for flood protection. "I just wish there was a way we could finance the project faster and get it built more quickly."

Even so, the city's Public Works Department has completed a three-month-long competition and selection process. This week it will recommend City Council hire two engineering design teams -- one to embark on the design of a flood protection system on the Cedar River's west side and the second to provide design help on east-side protection in concert with work that the Army Corps of Engineers already has begun there.

Corbett predicted that the City Council will approve the recommendations at its meeting on Tuesday and direct the Public Works Department to negotiate contracts with the two engineering design teams.

HR Green Co. of Cedar Rapids is being recommended to head up the west-side part of the project and Stanley Consultants of Muscatine the east-side work.

Dave Elgin, the city's public works director and city engineer, said Monday that the engineering design teams will conduct public engagement sessions as part of the design work and will help to oversee actual construction of the various segments of the system over a decade or more.

Building the city's flood-protection system is a half-billion-dollar-plus project, and professional services' contracts typically comprise 10 percent of a project budget, which in this case is $50 million.

However, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is designing much of the east-side part of the system, has a $12.5 million preconstruction engineering and design budget for its work.

In addition, the city estimates that $117 million of the total project cost of $570 million already has been spent, funded in large part by federal and state disaster money used for buyouts to move property out of the way of a flood-protection system.

Elgin said the first goal of hiring the two engineering design companies is to position the city to start actual construction of the flood protection as state and federal money comes in.

"This is start of preparedness to be ready to go," he said.

The city has secured $264 million over 20 years from the Iowa Flood Mitigation Board, money that will bring in an estimated $2.5 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and $5 million sthe next year until it settles into a revenue stream of $15 million a year.

At the same time, Congress and the Obama administration have authorized the spending of $78 million in federal funds for east-side flood protection in Cedar Rapids, but Congress must now appropriate the funds.

In short, state and federal support will come in over time, and construction will need to take that into account, Elgin said.

In fact, the proposed construction phases of the project could be broken down into smaller segments than initially planned to coordinate with money coming into the city to help pay for it, he said.

The city is expecting to spend about $110 million of its own funds over time to contribute to the project.

After July 1, Elgin said the city will seek bids on a few sections of removable flood walls, which the city will erect at the riverfront amphitheater to test them out and show the public what they will look like and how they will function.

The city's system is expected to use removable flood walls through the downtown and at Czech Village and Kingston Village rather than towering, permanent flood walls.

A first construction phase of the project is slated for 2015, when the city raises the new flood protection wall around the Quaker Co. plant to the height of the flood in 2008.

The city has federal funding in hand from an earlier disaster grant to pay for much of that work once final design is complete.

Elgin said more than 12 companies joined forces in three teams to compete for the flood-protection design and engineering contracts.

On the east side of the river, the Army Corps of Engineers has completed about 35 percent of its design, and much of the flood protection alignment has been pretty well decided, Elgin said.

Corbett said the HR Green team will provide "a fresh look" at the proposed west-side alignment, the design of which has not started and is not part of the Corps's project.

Elgin said today that the crest of the Cedar River at a predicted height of 17.3 feet -- the 16th highest in the city's history -- is something that city Public Works crews can handle without too much inconvenience to the public as they did a year ago when the river climbed to 18.23 feet.

"But it's just another reminder," he said of the return of high water. "Which is why this (flood protection) remains a priority for the City Council."

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(c)2014 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

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