Iowa City Press-Citizen: UI Hopes Flood Center Gets Lasting Funding

Friday, April 1, 2011

By B. A. Morelli
Iowa City Press-CitizenA stream stage sensor hangs on a bridge on Highway 1 over Willow Creek in Iowa City. Launched in 2009 in the wake of the 2008 flood that devastated communities across the state, the Flood Center is entrenched in several major projects, including developing a stream stage sensor that has been placed on at least 50 bridges statewide and a series of real-time predictive flood inundation maps.

A stream stage sensor hangs on a bridge on Highway 1 over Willow Creek in Iowa City. Launched in 2009 in the wake of the 2008 flood that devastated communities across the state, the Flood Center is entrenched in several major projects, including developing a stream stage sensor that has been placed on at least 50 bridges statewide and a series of real-time predictive flood inundation maps. / Special to the Press-Citizen

University of Iowa officials hope the Iowa Flood Center's impressions around the state will show it deserves a permanent line item in the state budget rather than having to lobby for funding renewal year after year.

A little more funding -- and a little more stable funding -- would allow the center to do more things in more communities statewide, regionally and nationally, said Larry Weber, director of IIHR, professor of civil and environmental engineering and a founding member of the Flood Center.

"It's a huge concern. At this point, it's a year-by-year center. We are working hard with the state Legislature to find a vehicle for multi-year funding and with federal funding establish the Flood Center as a regional and national flood resource center," Weber said.

Launched in 2009 in the wake of the 2008 flood that devastated communities across the state, the Flood Center is entrenched in several major projects, including developing a stream stage sensor that has been placed on at least 50 bridges statewide and a series of real-time predictive flood inundation maps. Both have a statewide presence. The center also has secured multimillion-dollar grants and contracts.

The center has a staff of 30, plus additional student staff. Ten of the staff members work at Iowa State University, which has a focus on precipitation and snowmelt modeling. Its primary purpose is to make Iowa better prepared and more resilient to future floods, Weber said.

"It's far exceeded the expectations of all those involved in the Flood Center," Weber said "We have high standards and high expectations, and I am just delighted with what we've been able to accomplish."

Until now, Weber and other UI officials have had to lobby for operating funds -- about $1.3 million annually, which falls short of the stated need of $2.3 million. Weber hopes Gov. Terry Branstad and legislators see its value and put the center on more solid footing by including it in the state general fund.

Currently, the center receives funding through the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund, which was set up post-flood.

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, applauded the efforts of the center but said that although the center's operating budget has been renewed this year, it won't be added to the permanent budget this year.

"They've demonstrated their value throughout the state. I think their funding for the upcoming years is solid. The governor included it in his budget. It's in our budget (in the Senate)," Bolkcom said. "(But) given where the budget is at, I don't think that is going to change (to permanent funding)."

The state also supports the center with $10 million over four years to develop flood maps. So far, the center has created inundation maps for five communities, including Iowa City, Cedar Falls and Charles City, and more are on the way. The center has identified upstream basin boundaries for 530 communities.

The online, interactive and publicly available inundation maps incorporate precipitation and weather patterns, river flow and other factors and lay that information over the topography to predict what areas are in danger of flooding.

"The intention is this will be used by citizens, decision makers, policy makers, legislators. What we are trying to do is getting this interface up and as interactive and intuitive as possible," said Carmen Langel, managing director of the Flood Center.