Cedar Rapids Gazette Editorial: Flood Center Proving Its Worth

Sunday, April 17, 2011

By The Gazette Editorial Board

It’s a little poetic. A testament to the power and unpredictability of flood events that the 2008 Iowa River floodwaters rose 20 feet inside the University of Iowa’s historic C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory — home to the country’s oldest university-based hydraulics lab. A sign of how much work remains to understand and better manage flooding in our state.

Two years into development, the Iowa Flood Center, part of the College of Engineering’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering, has made major strides in that respect, collecting data and creating user-friendly, practical tools to help Iowa communities respond to the threat of flooding.

The center’s work could make Iowa a national — even global — center for flood research, while helping at home.

We think it’s an example of the potential public, academic and economic good to be had by leveraging the state’s intellectual resources, and well worth continued support.

In spring, 2009, legislators established the IFC in 2009 — a likely first for advanced flood research and education.

Since then, the IFC has worked with state agencies to install sonar flood sensors measuring water levels throughout the state. They’ve developed a fine-grain system covering 500 Iowa communities, telling users how high the water is in their area and upstream.

They are developing flood plain maps and accurate digital elevation models for 85 Iowa counties. Now they’re working on combining the two sets of data, which would enable Iowa communities to predict block-by-block where floodwaters could reach in a particular flood event.

All the information is published on the center’s website (www.iowafloodcenter.org), designed to be intuitive and easy for amateur users.

Director Witold Krajewski and his colleagues are using a $1.3 million state appropriation as leverage — securing grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA and other sources. They’ve enlisted the help of Iowa State University colleagues with expertise in atmospheric sciences and agriculture and are inviting researchers from outside the state to test their theories and models using Iowa’s ever-expanding pool of data.

“We have floods, we have data, we have interest,” Krajewski told us this week. “I believe it will happen.”

Their appropriation for the next fiscal year will determine how much of that work will continue, and whether they’ll be able to expand their work.

An alphabet soup of federal agencies deal in their own way with flood events: forecasting from The National Weather Service, monitoring by the U.S. Geological Survey, response from the Federal Emergency Management Association — the list goes on. The IFC can examine all those components.

And there’s more to do: For starters, Krajewski wants to develop a network to detect and record soil moisture content — another critical factor that influences flooding.

The IFC has developed sensors to measure and transmit precipitation, soil moisture and temperature data to the center’s database — all that’s needed now is the money to build and install them.

And Krajewski wants to do more than help Iowa communities predict and prepare for a flood — he wants to help them to stop it. His staff are working on models that would mitigate flooding and have secondary benefits as well, like controlling soil erosion and recharging ground water tables.

“Other people have similar ideas,” Krajewski said. “What we’re adding is the technical ability.”

We’re glad to see this logical marriage of research and application bear fruit.