Iowa lawmakers seek flood funding answers

Source: The Gazette

Three federal lawmakers — in the latest attempt to press the Army Corps of Engineers to release money for the Cedar Rapids flood control system — are seeking answers to how the agency makes decisions about human safety exemptions and the benifit-cost ratio when funding flood and waterway projects.

U.S. Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley and U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, all Iowa Republicans, wrote Todd Semonite, lieutenant general of the Army Corps, and R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, reminding them of the challenges Cedar Rapids faced after the 2008 flood and outlining a perceived unequitable system for awarding federal aid.

The letter, which was announced in a news release, acknowledges the Cedar Rapids flood control system — an estimated $750-million-plus project that would protect the east and west side of the Cedar River with flood walls, levees, gates and pump stations — falls below the preferred 3-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio to receive federal aid.

However, the Army Corps makes exceptions when human safety is a factor.

According to the lawmakers, five projects were funded in fiscal 2017 under this exception: American River Watershed (Folsom Dam modifications) in California; Santa Ana River mainstem in California; American River Watershed (Folsom Dam raise) in California; Yuba River Basin in California; and Raritan River Basin in New Jersey.

“As representatives of a rural, Midwestern state, we are troubled that all five of these projects are located in coastal states,” the three Iowa lawmakers wrote. “We would like to know how the Corps determines which projects receive human safety exceptions.”

The letter seeks metrics used in deciding human safety exemptions, whether repeated costs are considered in human safety exemptions, who is involved in the decision, and documentation used to provide the human safety exemption for the five projects in fiscal 2017.

This is the latest in years of meetings, and at least one other previous letter, urging the agency to release money for Cedar Rapids, but to date the efforts have not paid off. 

This winter, Ernst questioned James and Semonite in committee hearings during which the officials acknowledged the ratio favors coastal states with higher property values and agreed the formula needed to be re-evaluated.

Congress authorized the Cedar Rapids project for $73 million in federal aid in 2014, and in 2016 prioritized it along with eight others as projects that need to be funded, but no money has been released.

“The community has been able to rebuild its downtown area and improve flood protection infrastructure using state and local dollars and federal disaster funds, but assistance from the Corps remains vital to completing the project and protecting against another catastrophic flood event,” the letter states.