There are economic and quality of life benefits to being in a river city. There's also an increased risk of flooding. Just ask Cedar Rapids residents and officials after the devastating and historic flood of 2008 when the Cedar River overflowed its banks and swallowed up businesses and homes downtown and in several neighborhoods. Managing how water flows through an urban area like Cedar Rapids is an ongoing challenge, especially as there are more frequent heavy rain events and aging infrastructure can't keep up.

Jen Winter, Cedar Rapids Public Works Director: In terms of our storm sewer system, throughout the city we have a connected network of open ditches, closed storm sewer pipe in areas, and eventually the vast majority of those come to the Cedar River. And not very many of them are gated off. So the Cedar River is generally our lowest point. All of that water has to fall by gravity and get to the Cedar River. Um, the problem is that when the river comes up, that water starts to backflow up that storm sewer system. So as that storm sewer system fills, we can actually see flooding, not just what you can see from the banks of the river, but as it's going through our little areas and filling up that storm sewer and flooding out into the streets through the storm sewer system.

The city has installed gates on some storm sewers that can be shut during high water events. And they built new pump stations that can then pump water from below areas back into the river when those storms that were gates are closed.

Jeff Pomeranz, Cedar Rapids City Manager: You always have that fear, particularly since '08 for Cedar Rapids, that we could flood again. And that's a big burden for the community.

Cedar Rapids is not only concerned with rainfall and water flow within the city. They have to monitor the entire Cedar River watershed. And they're at the mercy of what happens to the north.

Jen Winter: A hundred years ago, no farm fields were tiled. So all of that water. So you know, sat in those low areas of those farm fields as opposed to running off. So as we see more and more of those farm fields being titled, we see more and more of that water getting not only just getting to the river but it's getting there faster. What's really helpful to us, what we rely on, is a series of gauges that are on the river all the way upstream. So at any point in time we can monitor the elevation, the flow and how fast the river's coming up, not only in Cedar rapids, but in all those points upstream, which helps us be able to kind of predict what's going to happen here based on what was predicted and cities upstream from us and what actually happens there.

The city participates in several groups that work on initiatives to better manage the watershed.

Jen Winter: There's a lot of discussion of regional detention basins and larger detention areas to hold that water back. As well as restoration of native areas. So if you have, you know, just a large area that is grass, that water is going to travel across that grass a lot faster than it would if it was native materials. So if it was longer native grasses, no-mow areas, more of that water is going to sit there and be absorbed there. Um, and that'll delay the time that it takes to get to the rivers. Now it's not change that's going to happen today. Um, it's really, you know, steps that we're taking today that will hopefully improve for generations to come, that we can keep improving on that.

Those efforts not only help with the quantity of water, but the quality of water, too, by filtering out some pollutants before they get to rivers and streams. Building codes have changed, too. Developers used to be able to put buildings or concrete on 100 percent of their property. Now, codes force them to include detention basins or other measures to hold some of that water on their property and limit water runoff.

Jen Winter: What we have tried to do to kind of go above and beyond that is to put incentives in place to encourage existing properties to do the same. So, um, encourage existing properties to take up pavement that they don't need and to put a detention basin in. Or, if they're redoing a parking area to put permeable pavers in. So permeable pavers look like pavement, but the water actually infiltrates down through there and it can be stored underneath the pavement. Again, so you're reducing the amount of water that's running off. And there's also some water quality if you can filter that water as it goes down through the system.

Jeff Pomeranz: We have to protect ourselves. But we also want to make sure that the amenities that we put in are amenities that can benefit the public. So that's one of the strategies we've had. So, you know, mentioned our amphitheater. Our amphitheater serves as flood protection. But it also, 99 percent of the time, serves as an amenity for our community. The trail systems that we're going to build. The levees with trails on top of those levees. All these are amenities that are going to take this infrastructure investment and assure that it's something that the community can really benefit from.

The city acquired and cleared more than a thousand homes in harm's way after the flood of 2008 and created green space for the river to breathe. A nearly $750 million dollar plan is being carried out in the next 10 to 12 years to fully protect Cedar Rapids from future flooding.

REAP
Gilchrist Foundation