Cedar Rapids Gazette: Statehouse Map Mania Doesn't Extend to Watersheds

Tuesday, April 5, 2011
By Todd Dorman
Cedar Rapids Gazette

State lawmakers were stricken with map madness last week.

They pored over the intricacies of new maps detailing revised legislative and congressional districts. It was dramatic stuff. Their political futures were at stake.

If only we could get lawmakers interested in other maps.

For instance, there are some neat flood inundation maps developed by the Iowa Flood Center, which show what would happen in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and some other communities when local rivers rise again. With a few mouse clicks, you can watch water saturate Cedar Rapids at 24 feet, 26 feet, even up to 34 feet. A blue surge covers larger and larger swathes of town.

It’s fascinating and sobering. The future for countless communities is at stake. But it’s apparently not dramatic enough for legislators.

Statehouse efforts to beef up watershed management efforts, which could lower our risk of inundation, are going nowhere fast. It will take some skillful lawmaking to even keep current, small-scale programs intact.

If you’re just joining us, a watershed is an expanse of surrounding land that drains into a river. Watershed management is about controlling or slowing that drainage. Big changes in land use, agricultural practices and rapid urban/suburban development have transformed gradual runoff into a torrent.

River flow rates have jumped, and so have precipitation rates. Floods that smacked Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and many other communities in 2008 are a prime example of our heightened risk.

So you’d think our elected leaders would be chomping at the bit to find new and innovative ways to slow runoff with hopes of lessening the threat of costly catastrophic flooding. Instead, we’ve seen bipartisan neglect.

Counting the last budget approved by Democrats and a Republican budget being pushed by Gov. Terry Branstad, funding for an assortment of watershed improvement and management programs have dropped by roughly $13 million. The Flood Center will be funded next year, fortunately, but lawmakers still won’t make a permanent commitment its work.

Legislation offered earlier this year by Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, pumping $60 million annually into watersheds over the next several years, is as good as dead. “We’re playing defense rather than offense,” Hogg said. He plans to try to restore some funding to watershed efforts in the closing days of the session.

With so much debate and uncertainty still swirling around Cedar Rapids’ flood protection project, a state watershed management push could have been a welcome backstop. Now the map shows the legislative road leading to a dead end. That’s disappointing.