Addressing Floods of the Future: Expert discusses floodplain management issues

by Lissa Blake

“Do to people downstream as you would have people upstream do unto you.”

That Wendell Berry quote was part of a special presentation on floodplain management last week by Dr. Kamyar Enshayan of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Enshayan spoke to around 75 people at Luther College in Decorah Wednesday, June 27 on the topic of “Addressing Floods of the Future.”

A member of the Cedar Falls City Council for eight years, Enshayan has taken the lessons his town learned during the flood of 2008 to try to effect change regarding flood management.

“After the flood of 2008, I called for a moratorium of building things in the flood plain. A few weeks after, where there had been 12 feet of water, the council allowed a guy to fill that spot and build a house,” said Enshayan.

The professor said after the flood, he read everything he could about floodplains and talked with a number of floodplain experts. “What I found is that we are totally behind the times in our state and in most of the country,” he said.

Another thing he found when visiting with climatologists is Iowa has “lots more floods coming.”

After studying the impact flooding had on northeast Iowa during 2008, Enshayan gained a number of insights. “Floods are uneconomical. They are a waste of time and resources for local governments. But since 2008, very few communities have done anything different (to manage floodwater),” he said.

He said although Iowa convened a Water Coordinating Council that recommended floodplain building restrictions be increased from 100-year to 500-year stage, “The Legislature didn’t go that route.”

When looking at the factors that affect floodwater run-off, Enshayan cited three things: local floodplain management, upstream land use and climate change. He said floodplains are an important part of the equation and they “are not idle pieces of land just sitting there waiting to be developed. Flood plains provide vital ecosystem services, all for free,” he said.

He said, unfortunately, current Iowa law allows raising floodplains and building on them. “Current law allows rebuilding in the floodway and local boards of adjustment routinely grant variances and the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) routinely approves them,” he said.

“One foot above 100-year flood elevation does not protect people.”

He said in the case of some brand new homes that were allowed to be built in the floodplain and took on four feet of water after a flood, “That wasn’t an act of God, it was an act of City Council that put people in harm’s way.”

With regard to upstream land use, Enshayan said unfortunately the pattern of cropping systems in Iowa is creating land that has lost its water holding capacity. “The corn and bean system is inherently leaky,” he said.

He talked about different innovations that, when tried, have led to less run-off. Examples included leaving 90 percent of the land in crops and planting 10 percent in native prairie strips.

“When this was done, there was 37 percent less run-off, more soil and phosphorous retention, less fossil fuels used to harvest and improved water quality. Why couldn’t we have an Iowa-wide policy that encourages this?” he said.

He said in order for farmers to adopt such practices there have to be incentives. “But policymakers haven’t talked about those,” he said.

Enshayan added it is obvious that Iowa is experiencing more intense storms. “We need to make Iowa ‘spongier.’ We can do that. It’s totally doable,” he shared.

Enshayan said the reality is when intense flooding happens, it’s the local city, county, schools and first responders who are left to clean up the mess. He said through passing tougher standards, cities are doing their jobs.

“The city has the jurisdiction to protect the well-being of their community. During the flood of 2008, we did not protect those people,” he said.

When one attendee of the June 27 presentation asked him why municipalities are so quick to rezone land in the floodplain, he said, “Sometimes all you need is a sob story,” adding, it is the local government’s responsibility to keep its people from harm. “Maybe city staffs need to impress on them (the applicants) that this is a life and death issue.”

Following Enshayan’s presentation, Decorah City Manager Chad Bird gave a synopsis of what Decorah has been doing to address flooding concerns since 2008. He noted the city partnering with graduate students from the University of Iowa’s Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities to address stormwater, water quality, run-off and more.

One of the things that came out of that research was the creation of a new stormwater utility. “It operates just like any utility,” said Bird, adding residents are charged based on a statistical analysis of the amount of water that is shed off a particular property.

Those fees garner around $120,000 per year for the City, which is strictly allocated for stormwater best practices. “We looked at stormwater best practices, such as rain gardens, bioswales, stormwater run-offs and street and park projects,” said Bird.

Bird said although the City and County have worked with local emergency management to have a flood response action plan, there are often events that fall outside of the plan. “In August of 2016, we had eight inches of rain in 10 hours. That was not river flooding. That was rainfall and watershed flooding,” he said.

Bird said the action plan is reviewed annually and the City and County recently approved sandbagging operations and purchased a sandbagging machine in cooperation with Winneshiek County Emergency Management.

“We have actively engaged the Army Corps of Engineers and have improved our levee system. We have gotten better and smarter about how we maintain our levees,” he said.

He added the City recently joined with the Upper Iowa Watershed Management Authority and Planning and Zoning is undergoing a mid-term review of the City’s comprehensive plan.

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