Flood Challenges with Witold Krajewski and Tyler Olson

Jul 6, 2018  | 27 min  | Ep 4543

Top of mind for Iowa farmers and urban dwellers this summer, rainfall and river levels. What is the path forward for flood policy in Iowa? We sit down with the Director of the Iowa Flood Center Witold Krajewski and Cedar Rapids City Councilman Tyler Olson on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.


For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, July 6 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: Ten years ago this summer, Iowans were ravaged by record flooding from border to border. Just this past week, record rainfall in Central Iowa sent homeowners scrambling and policy makers looking for emergency relief. And in Cedar Rapids, a decade-long battle for federal flood mitigation funds led to more than $100 million in appropriations. But what does it all mean for our state's flood policy? Here to talk about it at the Iowa Press table today is Dr. Witold Krajewski, Director of the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa and Tyler Olson, former state legislator and now city councilman in Cedar Rapids. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press. Thank you for taking time to be with us.

Thanks for having us.

Thank you.

Yepsen: Across the table joining the conversation are James Lynch, Political Writer for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids and Kay Henderson, News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Let's start with the research. Tell us the assessment you have currently of the flood threat in Iowa as of the time of this show's taping, which is mid-day on Friday.

Krajewski: Right now we have beautiful weather so there is no threat for this week. But I would like to start by saying on behalf of all of us at the Iowa Flood Center that our thoughts go out to the victims of last weekend's terrible event here in the Des Moines area.

Henderson: What is the flood threat statewide currently?

Krajewski: Well, some rivers, mostly in the north, are at elevated stage levels, some exceeding flood levels and of course water flows downstream so we expect that some stations downstream will also experience some hopefully minor flooding.

Yepsen: Are we over the worst of it?

Krajewski: Well, for the time being, for this week, yes.

Lynch: We used to think of flooding as sort of a springtime event, an annoyance, but now here we are in June and July, we see flooding, we've seen flooding in September and later into the year. What is happening that any season can be flood season?

Krajewski: Well, historically the peak of the flood season in Iowa is in May, June, into early July. So flooding in September, that is unusual. Flooding on Thanksgiving is a bit more unusual. And rainfall, heavy rainfall in January, that is also very unusual. So, well I have to say that some 20 years ago or so during the first climate projections by climate scientists they were saying that the extremes will be increasing and the viability will be increasing and I think we are witnessing this very clearly.

Yepsen: I want to give some historical context to our discussion here and look at this from a statewide perspective. We have a graphic we're going to put up on our screen to show that this is not, this flooding is not just an issue in Central Iowa or in Cedar Rapids area of Eastern Iowa. This shows the counties hit by flooding from 1988 to 2016. The light blue colored counties are ones that had only 4 to 8 disaster declarations. The blue counties are 9 to 12 declarations. And the bluest ones are 13 to 17. So we can see this is a real statewide problem for us.

Krajewski: Absolutely. We've got a problem here. And so this is a 30 year perspective. If you go further back the situation doesn't change very much. So we've got the problem. And just look at it this way, if over 30 years you have in some counties 17 declarations of something that we think of as an unusual event, something that calls for presidential disaster declaration that shouldn't be thought of as a common event and it happens so many times so this means that every two or three years we get a disaster. So to me that implies one of two things. One is that perhaps we are not protecting ourselves because it is those more common events that happen frequently that cause damage to us. Or there is a possibility that our estimation or prediction of the frequency of those events is off.

Henderson: Mr. Olson, let's shift to the Cedar Rapids perspective. As David mentioned, this past week the Army Corp of Engineers set aside $117 million for the city for a series of flood protection measures along I believe 7.5 miles of the Cedar River corridor. Explain what the plan is.

Olson: Well, the plan includes both the east and the west sides of the river. That is a decision that Cedar Rapids as a community made years ago as we were recovering from the flood in 2008 and planning on how we were going to build flood protection. It is a series of earthen levees, removable flood walls, permanent flood walls that often times are integrated into the actual structures that are built on each side of the river. One example would be the McGrath Amphitheatre, which was one of the first pieces of flood protection constructed on the west side of the river downtown to serve as a concert venue and community gathering space, but the amphitheatre part is actually flood protection. Another example on the east side of the river would be the new CRST building, which was I believe completed last summer, actually has flood wall built into the base of the building. So it will protect both the east and west sides of the river and we're excited to have that news from the federal government that 10 years on they're going to make a significant investment in protecting our community.

Lynch: I think the price tag though is a little staggering when people look at it. In addition to the $117 million from the federal government I think the city share is about $350 million. How will the city pay for that? I'm sure the casino will help. But how will the city pay for that?

Olson: Well, we're not betting on the casino, James. I think that is one item that might be off the list. There are really a couple of main sources that cities are able to pursue. One is local option sales tax. As you know, Cedar Rapids is currently using that for street repair and improvement, very popular and that is at least for another five or six years that that's in place. The other option is bonding. And so the city council I think in the next couple of months, we actually started this in January, will make some final decisions about which of those to pursue. But when you look at a project that probably in ten or fifteen years when it's completed is going to cost $750 million you're looking at hundreds of millions of dollars that the city of Cedar Rapids is going to have to put in. And so at the very least it would be a combination of those two. I think though because of the popularity of the local option sales tax for streets I think the consensus on the council is to keep that as it is.

Yepsen: Excuse me, 10 or 15 years you said?

Olson: The construction project, yeah.

Yepsen: That's starting right now. And this is for an event that started in 2008. 25 years on the people of Cedar Rapids can say, well we don't have to go through another 2008. Why so long?

Olson: Well, we almost did, in 2016 we had an event, a flood that would have been the highest ever but for 2008. So there's a couple of reasons behind that. One is we have really had to work very hard to convince the federal government to participate. The state made a commitment when I was in the legislature a couple of years after the flood to participate at about $200 and some million dollars. But that was contingent upon federal and local match. So one is the federal part. We have done construction though. As I mentioned, we have done some projects on the west side of the river, the McGrath Amphitheatre, the Sinclair Levee on the southeast side. So construction has started but it just, when you're talking about a $700 million project it's just going to take a few years to physically construct the control system.

Yepsen: Dr. Krajewski, will the Cedar Rapids project in 15 years solve Cedar Rapids' problem?

Krajewski: Well, there is always a chance for another big event and so certainly these measures will protect the city to some level but it's difficult to say if this protection is bulletproof forever. And I think that there's a trap that we often put ourselves in that we plan for the largest historical event that happened and we think that nothing bigger can happen and then it happens and then we do our planning.

Yepsen: You mentioned a moment ago about the extremes in climate. I've heard that from other people that we're seeing colder colds and hotter hots in our weather. What is happening in Iowa's climate?

Krajewski: Well, we are experiencing this. So the heat and so the temperatures and the humidity are slowly increasing. And so those are favorable conditions for precipitation. Of course the moisture comes from outside of Iowa. But again there is this increased vigor, if you will, in the atmosphere. And so then a lot of water vapor is transported across the country and some of it goes over Iowa, dumped as rain.

Yepsen: Does this expose Iowa to a greater flood threat in the future? Or could we be looking at dry periods where we're having drought?

Krajewski: Well, we could have droughts and we had some droughts in '08 and 2012 and we had a combination in the same year in 2013, a very wet spring, flooding and then the rest of the summer was very dry.

Yepsen: We ask you to deal with the flood side of this question.

Krajewski: That's right. But as a hydrologist we have to deal with both actually.

Henderson: Mr. Krajewski, I'm wondering if you could offer the number one recommendation for city and county officials drafting ordinances to try to deal with flood mitigation. What would it be? To create zones where people can't build? Or what would be your recommendation?

Krajewski: Well, so the most important recommendation is to seek information and the state has invested in technologies that provide that information. So even before the 2008 flood the state invested in acquiring LIDAR data, so very accurate, very high resolution topography data, which of course is very important when you consider high water that is flowing and rivers might spill out. So that is one piece of information. And based on this information the Iowa Flood Center together with state agencies, Iowa DNR, and using federal funding we developed statewide flood mapping and these maps are everywhere. They have information of value, they have this statistical mean that is associated with them and then the rest is just judgment. So we cannot predict the exact amounts of rainfall that far into the future but these maps provide solid information.

Henderson: There are some communities that require if you lay concrete you have to take some additional measures to have some sort of pooling mechanism for water that may accumulate. Is that helpful?

Krajewski: Well, all measures that keep water in the landscape are helpful. So -- storage in the landscape definitely helps mitigating potential flooding.

Henderson: Mr. Olson, I'll turn to you. You were a state official, now you're a local official. If you could offer advice to other city council members across the state, what would be your number one recommendation for what to do proactively to deal with flooding of the future?

Olson: Well, I think the recommendation about having the information and really looking ahead and trying to plan for maybe a more significant event than we can imagine at this point is probably good advice. I think there are a lot of probably littler things to do too. One thing that Cedar Rapids does as a community is work with businesses that when they are putting in new parking lots we have a cost share program to do detention, rain gardens and that kind of thing. We also, under Mayor Ron Corbett, our former mayor, had established a Cedar River Watershed partnership where we worked with communities upstream from us and some downstream, worked with landowners to do things like buffer strips, how we're dealing with the land and what is coming into the stream because ultimately when you deal with events like last weekend here in Central Iowa there's only so much you can plan for. There were some areas I think that received 10 inches of rain in 2 hours. And so all of those little things add up hopefully to mitigate the effect. And then also when you look at building permanent flood protection like we're going to that flood protection gets you more if you're decreasing the amount of flow into the watershed.

Lynch: Mr. Olson, I want to go back to the funding and the cost question again. Flash flooding here in Central Iowa last weekend is a good reminder of the need for flood protection. But when it's dry how do you convince people to pay for a bond issue or pay a local option sales tax to pay for these flood protections? Do you have to do it, kind of strike when there's water in the basement?

Olson: Well, I hope not. You hate to have to go through another serious disaster in order to be able to get that done. I think a few things are coming together here to lead Cedar Rapids to move forward or the city council to move forward on identifying that funding stream. One is the ten year anniversary, one of the things that we've talked about here. Although it has been ten years, for a lot of folks it feels like yesterday. The scope of the disaster in Cedar Rapids and really communities up and down the river in other parts of the state too was overwhelming. The second is two years ago in Cedar Rapids we endured a flood event that would have been the record but for 2008. So temporary flood protection was erected and was able to protect a lot of the city. But I think it reminded folks that there is an imminent threat here. And the last then is the federal announcement. So we're required to spend the federal money and state money to come up with a significant local match and we're going to do that in the coming months.

Yepsen: I want to go back to the question of what governments should do. Dr. Krajewski, if you're a city council member watching this program, shouldn't you be asking is your power plant secure? Is your water plant secure? In 1993, this community lost both and it sure seems a lot easier to people to clean up after a flood if you have electricity and clean water to do it with. But do you have recommendations like that to city council or state officials?

Krajewski: Absolutely. We have to protect the critical infrastructure to a higher degree of risk. I just want to point out that many communities have development regulations and building permits based on the notion of the 100 year flood, which is an event that has a 1% annual chance of happening. But simple calculations show that if you wait say over 30 years, which is a typical period for a house mortgage, then that probability that at some point you will be flooded by an event like that, 26%. And very few people know about this. And the critical infrastructure, like you mentioned, we should protect ourselves to even lower probability of something big happening.

Yepsen: Because in the case of Des Moines we go back and their levees around the water plant were not high enough for the threat that they faced. Can you tell a community here is the threat you face in Jefferson, Iowa?

Krajewski: Well, so again only statistically. All we have are our records, observational records and based on these records we can estimate the chances of something big happening. Often these records are not long enough so our estimates are corrupted by significant uncertainty.

Henderson: One of the contributors to flooding in the Des Moines area this past weekend was the fact that the storm sewers couldn't handle the volume. Is there adequate mapping of municipally owned storm sewers around the state? And can city council members, like the person sitting next to you, look at that and analyze where they need to spend their money to improve the systems?

Krajewski: Well, for the big cities definitely that information exists and there are engineering departments and they have the responsibility of maintaining those systems. Those systems are designed for a certain level of events. And again, that is judgment, that is according to engineering standards and designing for something that will never happen, that would cost a lot of money.

Lynch: Mr. Olson, you have watched development in Cedar Rapids for a long time. And I wonder, how good are the flood plain maps given the pace of development that we're seeing? Are these maps being updated to include new development and that impact on flooding problems?

Olson: Well, the Flood Center for one has been a great partner in providing that data. We are kind of basing our plans off of the 2008 flood event. We could experience one that is more significant and would be kind of outside of those. But we're really focused on getting ready for that. So the flood plain maps are continually updated, will be as we build permanent protection. But one of the advantages to that permanent protection, once it is certified by FEMA, is that it takes areas that were once in the 100 or 500 year flood plain and takes them out. So things like flood insurance become less expensive or not necessary. And so really I think we're kind of at a place where the development community and business community as well as homeowners want us to take that step and get that permanent flood protection done.

Lynch: Mr. Krajewski, I wonder talking about those flood plain maps, do they need to be altered to reflect changing weather patterns, these more extreme events you've talked about?

Krajewski: That is not so easy. That is absolutely not easy because again in developing the maps for the state of Iowa, including Cedar Rapids, we followed certain nationwide standards and so because we wanted these maps to be approved by FEMA so that they could serve in planning purposes. But yes there are some questions regarding the future trends.

Henderson: How far away are researchers such as yourself from getting to the point where you can predict floods and issue a warning in the same way that folks issue hey, tornado warning ahead? Is that a long way away?

Krajewski: Well, no. I think that they have a more difficult problem of course for flooding and mostly here in Iowa it is all about the rainfall so how well meteorologists can predict rainfall, that is a key ingredient of predicting floods.

Yepsen: Mr. Olson, why do we allow people to move back into flood zones? If you get flooded and the government goes in and helps you out, shouldn't the taxpayer be able to say, you're not going back in there again?

Olson: Well, in some areas we don't and we won't. So Cedar Rapids, the city purchased a large number of flooded houses, structures and in a lot of those places we will not rebuild there. One, it helps relieve some of that pressure so that if the water can spread out obviously it's not as high farther downstream. But two, we don't want to have to rebuild continually over and over. There are some things though that just can't be moved. Downtown Cedar Rapids some of the industrial, in particular grain processing capacity that everyone across the state uses, cannot be moved.

Yepsen: We've got about 15 seconds. Mr. Olson, should we increase the penalties on people who drive in flooded streets and stall and then the police or firefighters have to come and bail you out? Shouldn't we have a knucklehead law saying you pay a fine for that sort of thing?

Olson: We could probably use that in a number of situations. That in particular seems to be one of them. It's so dangerous though that the penalty is you lose your car and in some cases unfortunately we saw some loss of life.

Yepsen: That's right, that's right. Listen, we're out of time. I want to thank you both for being with us today to talk about a very important subject in Iowa. Thank you.

Krajewski: Thank you, thank you very much.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular airtimes, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday on IPTV's main channel with a rebroadcast Saturday morning on our .3 World Channel and always at iptv.org. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa