University of Iowa: A case study of flood response

 

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In honor of construction starting soon to replace one of the last University of Iowa buildings damaged by the 2008 floods, we have decided to highlight a history of flood infrastructure investments at the university .

Just one-year shy of a decade since the 2008 floods, the final plans have been approved for a new facility for the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Like Hancher Auditorium, the music school, the library, and the Iowa Memorial Union, among about seventeen other buildings (Connerly et al 2017), the art museum was a significant loss to the university that scattered its 14,000-estimated piece collection to new locations on and off campus.

According to Connerly et al 2017, damages and recovery were estimated to be $743 million and is the highest costing disaster recovery in Iowa. As a public institution located in a floodplain area, it has had a history of flood preparation and response since its inception in 1847. As their article explains, the flooding brought up many critical questions, including: “why did the University construct important new buildings, some of them iconic, within the floodplain?” and how can the university cope with future natural and human-made flooding?

To answer the first question, the university built where they did predominantly because they had few options. The risk of flood also gave the appearance of being manageable at the time and policies for flood mitigation and subsidies were more risky than they appeared to be (Connerly et al 2017). The university started on a small four block area east of the Iowa River. The university and the City of Iowa City grew concurrently causing buildings to be placed closer and closer to the river. In 1905, the university commissioned a master plan by the Olmsted Brothers that included riverfront property, but its use would only be for recreation and parks (Connerly et al 2017). Land acquisition advisement by the Olmsteds was illustrated in the following:

“The Olmsted Brothers emphasized the need to acquire land that would be of value to the University, even if it costs more. They stated, ‘‘the process of acquisition of additional land must evidently go on indefinitely, but some other motives than those of convenience and cheapness should be kept in mind and should often have more weight than those.” (55)

The construction on the floodplain started with the Iowa Memorial Union (IMU) in the 1920s and then grew to include the arts campus. Construction for a fine arts building was originally planned for a site north of the IMU, but an agreement could not be reached for a price. Instead, the campus was developed on acquired land that was a wetland formerly used as a city landfill by the river (Connerly et al 2017).

The wetlands were filled and the buildings were constructed to be above recorded flood level data available at the time and levees were constructed on the river. Later, these efforts included the university’s support of building the Coralville Reservoir by the Army Corps of Engineers, in which the president of the university at that time stated, “the Reservoir will make possible a program for the permanent development of the river front through the University campus” ( Connerly et al 2017, p.58). The campus was growing in two halves on the east and west side of the river. Development in-between would unite the two pieces, especially when considering there were little other places to build.

This culminates in the issue of what Connerly et al (2017) describes as the “safe development paradox.” This term is used to describe the federal support for levees, dams, disaster aid programs, and other assistance that spurred development in the floodplains. By providing a safety net with federal assisted water-related control, recovery, and insurance, federal policy enabled development that came at a cost with the 1993 and 2008 floods.

How can the university cope with natural and human-made flooding for the future?

To answer this question, the university has responded to the 2008 floods by re-purposing or completely rebuilding new facilities that are more resilient to withstanding future flooding using scientific modelling as a tool. The recovery efforts include a multitude of partnerships that choreograph their work around where FEMA compliance and insurance policies reach within each building. The university voluntarily chose to conduct a campus-wide flood mitigation strategy that is in progress. This strategy includes elevated sidewalks, supports for temporary flood walls, building pumping systems, and removable external walls. The university has also rebuilt two buildings away from their original locations. As seen above, these strategies have been tested with the rise in water levels in 2013.

In review, the tumultuous history of flooding infrastructure contains valuable lessons. Resilience, which is at the core of what public infrastructure is trying to achieve, is the ability to spring back from disasters. The university that came out on the other side of the 2008 floods is one that utilizes water research and technology using scientific methods and demonstrates that there is room for improvement in state and federal policies and procedures. As a result, when future flooding occurs, we will all be better able to respond.

Connerly, Charles, Laurian, Lucie, Throgmorton, James. 2017. Planning for Floods at the University of Iowa. Journal of Planning History 16(1): 50-73.

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Hanna Bates is the Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center. She has a MS in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University. She is also an alumna of the University of Iowa for her undergraduate degree. 

A Day at the Lake

Post submitted by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center

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Slideshow of the Iowa Water Center Board visit to the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory.

This week, the Iowa Water Center Advisory Board held their bi-annual meeting at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory at Lake Okoboji in northwestern Iowa. The IWC advisory board started in 2006, and is made up of representatives from around the state (list of members provided below). This was the first meeting for several of our board members, so we covered IWC history to start off the meeting and spent time discussing current and upcoming IWC activities.  Staff members and the advisory board also visited the research field sites for Elizabeth Swanner, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences at Iowa State University.

Swanner’s research is funded by the Iowa Water Center’s competitive annual seed grant program. This grant program funds one faculty member at an Iowa college as well as graduate students. Swanner’s project titled, “The role of iron mobility from anoxic sediments in stimulating harmful algal blooms,” received funding in 2016 and renewed funding for 2017. During the visit, Swanner described the project and demonstrated how samples are collected during a pontoon boat ride. Her research is focused on evaluating the potential that iron is released out of lake sediments, thus stimulating the blooming of toxic cyanobacteria in Iowa’s lakes during the summers. You can read more about her research here.

Follow her research on twitter at @betsyswanner.

The Iowa Water Center Board Members

  • Larry Weber (Chair), Director of IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, University of Iowa
  • Marty Adkins, Asst. State Conservationist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Daryl Smith, Professor Emeritus of Biology at University of Northern Iowa
  • Mary Skopec, Executive Director of Lakeside Laboratory
  • Jon Nania, Supervisory Hydrologist at the Iowa Water Science Center at the USGS (replacing Kevin Richards as USGS Iowa Water Science Center representative)
  • Jon Tack,  Water Quality Bureau Chief at the Iowa DNR (replacing Bill Ehm as IDNR representative)
  • Jake Hansen, Water Resources Bureau Chief at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (replacing Jim Gillespie as IDALS representative)
  • John Lawrence, Iowa State University Interim Vice President for Extension and Outreach
  • James Reecy, Professor in the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University (replacing Wolfgang Kliemann as ISU Vice President for Research representative)

We’d like to extend a special thank you to Mary Skopec for making the arrangements for our meeting at Lakeside Lab. We highly recommend trekking to Okoboji for a tour of the campus or to take one of Lakeside’s academic courses. Lakeside does a variety of outreach, too – so bring the entire family!

Caring for Creation & Sister Water

Submitted by Emilia Sautter, Ecospirituality Coordinator at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center. Post originally appeared in the Prairiewoods’ Newsletter

Caring for Sister Water was one of many creation care efforts that came with the founding of Prairiewoods 20 years ago. These efforts included two infiltration ponds that hold much of the water that runs off our parking lots and roadways, as well as numerous trees and plants with extensive root systems that hold and cleanse water. After the Cedar Rapids floods of 2008, we doubled our efforts to address storm water concerns— we installed permeable pavers, hosted rain barrel classes and identified four storm water culverts that drain on our land. Varying degrees of erosion meant that all four of these culvert areas needed attention.

The first project—the North Culvert—was addressed in the fall of 2013. We built a series of rock check dams to help slow storm water, reducing the erosion that was degrading the area.

The East Culvert, the largest culvert on our property, recently was completed, thanks to generous grants from the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation and Rockwell Collins. This culvert has a drainage area of about 73 acres, meaning that water from more than 70 acres drains onto our land through this storm water culvert. The water then flows into Dry Creek and eventually into the Indian Creek and Cedar River Watersheds. (The Cedar River Watershed includes Hiawatha, Cedar Rapids and a number of other communities. It is what flooded in 2008.) Over the years, rain events and impervious surfaces (such as roads, driveways and turf grass) have forced large amounts of fast moving water through this culvert, degrading the culvert and resulting in severe stream bank erosion.

Why do we care? Erosion means soil loss, soil loss leads to sedimentation in the water, and sedimentation (the number one cause of water pollution in Iowa) leads to reduced water quality (1). Soil is the foundation of our entire food system, and without it we humans could not live. The health of Sister Water is a direct reflection of our own health, as our bodies are about 60% water.

During the East Culvert Project, we reshaped the eroded banks to allow water to spread out. We also re-seeded the banks with vegetation that better holds the soil. We removed some trees to allow more light in to help the vegetation thrive.

One way to help Sister Water is to move away from systems that force water into our waterways, since this leads to flooding and water pollution. Sister Water wants to move more slowly, at her own pace, nourishing flora and fauna as she infiltrates back into Earth. At Prairiewoods, we want to help her as best we can.

Thanks to the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation and Rockwell Collins, we are offering free educational classes as part of our East Culvert Project. Join us for EarthFriendly Lawn Care on Sept. 29 (see p. 9 for details) or for upcoming Rain Barrel Classes (see our website for details). Visit  www.IowaStormWater.org to learn what you can do with your own lawn.  And if you are a Cedar Rapids resident, visit  www.Cedar-Rapids.org to learn how you can get reimbursed for up to 50% of storm water retention projects on your property

(1) Statistic is regarding the source of surface water pollution by volume in Iowa. Source: https://www.polkcountyiowa.gov/conservation/education/nature-in-iowa/water-quality/.

A Race to the Lake (essay)

In honor of publishing the 2017 Spirit of the Water Essay Contest, the Iowa Water Center staff have decided to join in and answer the chosen essay prompt for the contest.

This year, the prompt was: Think of a body of water that you are familiar with and the different kinds of benefits that it provides to the surrounding area. Why are places like that worth protecting?

Photo left: An Iowa 3A Cross Country Race after the starting line, Hanna Bates in a Cross Country Race. Photos from 2007.

A Race to the Lake

Story submitted by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center

“This wouldn’t be so bad, I told myself. But secretly, I knew that I was quite wrong.” ― Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

This was my initial thought at the beginning of each cross county race in high school. Heck, even at the beginning of each practice run when I was dusted from the start by each of my teammates. Our running paths would take us through country golf courses, down empty gravel roads in the countryside, and through state parks that were isolated natural oases among the patchwork of cities and crop fields that make up Iowa. Regardless of where we were running, the path always ended with water, which would be my respite.

I was never very athletic growing up. Scratch that. I was not athletic at all. My athletic career prior to long distance running was a brief stint in volleyball in which I was the substitute for the bottom team (no joke). I sought out running, rather it sought me out, because I was looking for a sport that excluded flying balls and included getting a little lost out in nature. Being out in the woods also provided a break from the pressures of school work and other extracurricular activities.

As Bryson says in A Walk in the Woods:

”Most of the time I am sunk in thought, but at some point on each walk there comes a moment when I look up and notice, with a kind of first-time astonishment, the amazing complex delicacy of the woods, the casual ease with which elemental things come together to form a composition that is–whatever the season, wherever I put my besotted gaze–perfect.”

I was never in it for the race, but for the benefits of green exercise. I was never first, but never last. In my best race I came in 24th out of about 120 racers in the junior varsity heat. During this race my coach sounded kind of surprised and cheered, “wow, you’re actually racing!” along the sidelines of the trail. My intelligent response as I ran by was “what??” in disbelief. Up to that point, I thought he let me on the team just for fun.

As Bryson also notes, the hardest part is discovering that there is always more hill. And that’s where water enters my story. Prairie Rose State Park near Harlan, Iowa is one of my favorite places to run. Almost an island in the middle of farmland, it is a collection of trees, grassy paths, and a good-sized lake. In the muggy heat of August, I would run up steep hills and down winding paths leaving myself a little dazed and directionless. The lake would always be my guide. It was what would keep me going on the trail. I couldn’t go backwards. I couldn’t stop and sit on the trail and wait for the end of the path to come closer. I only had to think of the lake as punctuation mark at the end of a hard run. It served as an exclamation point to the end rather than a simple, banal period.

I would trudge on and it would appear and disappear from a distance. If I could make it to the sandy shore of the lake, I could do anything. As it appeared more frequently and came closer, I knew I was at the conclusion of the trail. When I would reappear from the trees and through the clearing, I would go straight towards the water. I couldn’t peel off my sweat soaked socks fast enough as I would stumble across the sandy beach to the swimming area of the lake. My shoes and socks would be abandoned on the shore without care – I just wanted the cool touch of lake water on my tired legs and feet. I would take in the lake’s embrace as it cooled the heat from a tough run in the woods.

I would often be close to last to emerge from the woods and into the water on group runs, but I was accepted as if I was the first. Places like this are worth protecting because they are welcome to you no matter who you are and why you came. It’s just more than glad that you did. The lake was more than just a finish line, but something worth the trouble when struggling through the challenging terrain. The lake serves so many benefits to the community by providing habitat and and being a popular camping spot, but to me, it served as a milestone for overcoming the large hurdles in long distance running.

In the years since my cross country days it has been emptied of its contents and dredged. I have run a little less and had to trade in dirt paths for tough concrete. I visited the lake once when it was undergoing repair. It looked like a crusty pockmark waiting to be a healthy habitat again. It has since been refilled and back to its old glory, which has been a reminder for me to come back to nature on my runs. I can’t wait to visit home, put on my running shoes, and race to the lake.

Cedar River (essay)

In honor of publishing the 2017 Spirit of the Water Essay Contest, the Iowa Water Center staff have decided to join in and answer the chosen essay prompt for the contest.

This year, the prompt was: Think of a body of water that you are familiar with and the different kinds of benefits that it provides to the surrounding area. Why are places like that worth protecting?

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Dr. Richard Cruse fishing in 2013. Photo submitted by Cruse.

Cedar River

Story submitted by Dr. Richard Cruse, Director of the Iowa Water Center

What is it that makes lakes and streams so special to so many? Is it what our eyes see, or what our noses sense, or maybe it is the sounds associated with diverse life along these bodies of water?  Maybe it is the sense of warm or maybe chilly water as you walk in a stream or the temperature of a fish you hold taken from the water.  And what about the personal feelings of freedom that comes from bonding with constantly flowing water as it finds it way around the next bend?  And then there is the mystery of what lies beneath the surface, a surface that reflects your image like a mirror no one can ever possess.

My personal bond with streams was first tied to fishing in the Cedar River.  I spent countless hours sitting on the bank with a fishing pole in hand, dominantly early in the morning or late at night pursuing what was then our sport fish – the channel cat.  As I learned what worked (and of course what did not), success was the norm.  Catching was not the challenge it once was, nor was it as exciting as it previously had been because I had experienced it many times.  Yet, my drive to repeat the fishing activity grew.  What was truly driving my urge to fight mosquitos and suffer welts from an occasional poison ivy or nettles encounter?  It was not the thrill of catching a fish, the likes of which I had caught many times before.  It was, and still is, the bond and sense of freedom that comes from a natural water connection.

My sense of connectedness with the natural world has grown from the seeds planted in my childhood along the Cedar River.  I’ve fished for REAL sportfish in what some consider quite glamorous fishing locations – Minnesota, Ontario, and even in Europe.  I’ve camped along lakes in the Canadian Wilderness about which many can only dream.  I’ve camped and hunted in the Saw Tooth Mountains of the Idaho Rockies following, crossing and drinking from mountain streams overflowing with energy, freedom, and the laughter of Mom Nature.  My desire to return to these locations is immense, but no greater than the desire to return to the sand bars on which I camped as a teenage on the Cedar in Bremer County.

The passion of those that have experienced the unexplainable connection with our lakes and streams drives our desire to maintain or improve water quality and natural resources in Iowa and the nation.  The magic of the water moments cannot be duplicated or reproduced with any technology known to man.  My dad told me often, not everything with value can be bought, and in fact, things with the most value have no price tag.  My bond with the natural world is priceless and my desire to share these experiences with family and friends knows no bounds.  May everyone sometime experience the choir of frogs singing relentlessly through the night, the echo of rippling water flowing across a rocky river bottom, the fragrance of fresh air heavy with night time dew, and the unexplainable joy that only these experiences can bring.

Home by the Water (essay)

In honor of publishing the 2017 Spirit of the Water Essay Contest, the Iowa Water Center staff have decided to join in and answer the chosen essay prompt for the contest.

This year, the prompt was: Think of a body of water that you are familiar with and the different kinds of benefits that it provides to the surrounding area. Why are places like that worth protecting?

Left Clockwise: Mississippi River in Davenport, IA; Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, IA; and West Lake Park in Davenport, IA. Photos by Amy Zank.

Home by the Water

Story submitted by Melissa Miller, Associate Director for the Iowa Water Center

The night before I left my hometown for my freshman year of college, I told my parents I was going for one last drive around town. I toured the familiar streets of my neighborhood, cruised past the busy big box store corridor where I’d held a couple of part-time jobs, then made my way down to the riverfront to say goodbye to the Mighty Mississippi. Growing up in a river town, it’s no surprise that water shaped my childhood.

For the first ten years of my life, I lived on a dead-end street that backed up to a stream. We weren’t supposed to play in the creek, but with my parents at work, an older brother and sister, and a neighborhood full of kids our ages, I spent a lot of summer days in and around that water. It was shallow enough for a six year old to splash around without fear, but deep enough to examine peculiar aquatic creatures and concoct creative means for catching small fish. The rest of the year, Candlelight Creek guided me home from school each day.

My fond childhood memories of water don’t stop at the end of the creek. Even as a city kid, I knew how to bait a hook by the time I was in kindergarten. My grandpa would take us to West Lake Park out at the edge of town and we’d catch bluegill and crawdads all day long. We feared the day we would be old enough to need a fishing license and worried Grandpa wouldn’t want to take us anymore if it cost money.

I never fished in the Mississippi, but I’ve always been drawn to it for reasons I didn’t try to understand. We watched minor league baseball at John O’Donnell Stadium (now called Modern Woodman Park, but old habits die heard); listened to concerts at the bandshell in LeClaire Park; took prom pictures with the Centennial Bridge in the background; worshiped at sunrise service near the banks on Easter morning; cycled along its shores on the bike path; admired (okay, envied) the historic mansions on River Drive. Those are all things you can do just about anywhere – but the river just makes everything better.

There are lots of reasons to protect the Mississippi River, West Lake, and Candlelight Creek – commerce, transportation, recreation, habitat and ecosystem preservation, to name a few – but my reason for protecting the water is simple. Water is home.

Not too far from the farm where I live now runs the South Fork of the Iowa River. I hope my daughters know the joy of wading to a sand bar hoping to discover wildlife and the comfort of setting up camp on the banks to sit in the peace of their surroundings. I hope on the night before they leave their childhood home to set off on a new adventure, they tell me, “Mom, I’m going to the river.” In the meantime, I’ll do all I can to protect the water, our home.

View from my Windshield: Observations of soil erosion across Iowa

Post written by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center

For the past couple of weeks, I have been on the road across Iowa. These trips vary in their purpose, but one thing that remains the same is the evident erosion in the fields along my travels. Regardless of where I am – whether it is in the Loess Hills visiting family or in the Des Moines Lobe for a meeting – spring rains have revealed that there are deep cuts in the bare brown soils where lush, even soils used to be.

Cruse et al. (2016) writes:

“Topsoil thinning is closely linked to loss of crop production potential. Typical statewide average erosion rates have only a minor impact on crop yields in the subsequent year. However, cumulative effects are far more significant and contribute to a loss of state revenue that becomes much more important as time progresses.”

The simple fact is that without soil there would be no life. In Iowa, we have high quality soils that, along with some good science and great farmers, enable us to be the top producers in corn, hog, and egg production. This leads to the question: What may be the ultimate cost of this productivity?

Cruse et al. (2016) conducted a study to determine the effects of erosion on commodity yields and to gauge the future impacts on the agricultural economy in Iowa. Researchers studied seven farm sites in Iowa with cropping history and available yield maps. The Daily Erosion Project was used to estimate crop yield impact on soil depth from 2007-2014. The average state loss across those years was 5.7 tons of soil per acre per year. “Assuming a 2.2 bushel per acre corn yield loss across 14 million acres in a given year and a corn price of $4.00/bu, the next year’s crop production loss would equate to approximately $4.3 million total across this land area” (Cruse et al. 2016). There are informational resources and federal programs available for soil conservation practices, but with a short-term economic market system, there is little motivation to participate.

Cruse et al. (2016) writes:

“Short-term minor yield impacts on a per acre basis create little incentive for investing in short-term soil conservation strategies available for many farmland renters. However, as the cumulative effect compounds the economic effect over time, landowners that have longer term planning horizons are much better positioned to recover their financial investments in soil conservation practices.”

To put is succinctly, a loss of soil leads to a loss of productivity, which leads to a financial loss for the state. The impacts of the above findings on decision-making out in the field may be significant given the short-term mindset of our commodity market. Making present-day investments to maintain soils may pay off in the end when compared to short-term commodity gains from year-to-year. Other research has revealed that there is hardly a piece of land in Iowa that is exempt from the problem of erosion. According to Cruse et. al. (2006), soil erosion affects everyone although it is spatially and temporally variable. With 55% of Iowa farmland leased rather than owner controlled (Duffy et al. 2013), an investment in soil saving practices will require candid conversations and real partnerships between a tenant and landowner.

Overall, the first step in making a change is being knowledgeable about your surroundings. Next time you are on the road, look out in the field and really see where you are travelling. Then, compare that to what the data shows on the Daily Erosion Project. You may be surprised about what you learn.

References

Cruse, R., D. Flanagan, J. Frankenberger, B. Gelder, D. Herzmann, D. James, W. Krajewski, Kraszewski, J. Laflen, J. Opsomer, and D. Todey. 2006. Daily estimates of rainfall, water runoff, and soil erosion in Iowa. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 61(4): 191-199.

Cruse, Richard M., Mack Shelley, C. Lee Burras, John Tyndall, and Melissa Miller. 2016. Economic impacts of soil erosion in Iowa. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Competitive Grant Report E2014-17.

Duffy, Michael, William Edwards, and Ann Johanns. 2013. Survey of Iowa Leasing Practices, 2012. Iowa State University Extension & Outreach. File C2-15.