Cedar Rapids breaks ground on the next phase of its flood control system

City and federal leaders, along with members from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, celebrate the 16th Avenue floodgate at the groundbreaking on Oct. 8, 2019. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Fifteen months after securing $117 million in federal funding for its flood control system, Cedar Rapids held a groundbreaking ceremony for the first project paid for by that money, the 16th Avenue SE floodgate. City officials were joined by U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, Rep. Abby Finkenauer and officers from the Army Corps of Engineers for the ceremony at Lion Bridge on Tuesday afternoon.

Speaking at the event, Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz praised the “tireless efforts” of those involved with the project.

“We often talk about partnerships at all levels of government,” Pomeranz said. “Our success today, this groundbreaking, is indeed an example of how we can all work together towards a great and important goal, putting politics aside and working for the best interests of an entire community.”

The 14-foot-tall, 67-foot-long floodgate is estimated to cost $2.4 million. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The 14-foot-tall, 67-foot-long floodgate is designed to lock into place in approximately 30 minutes, and protect the surrounding area from future floods that reach the height of the 2008 flood that devastated the community.

“You might say ‘nothing like that could happen again,’” Grassley said. “It can happen again, and with this project here it’s going to protect it from at least happening in the damage that it had in the past unless there’s something really extraordinary happening again. So we’re here to celebrate because the community is pulling together.”

The flood control system plan, which was approved in June 2015, is expected to cost $750 million over the next 20 years. The goal is to complete the project in 10 to 15 years, according to the city’s website.

Some of the $117 million in federal funds Cedar Rapids was awarded in July 2018 are loans, so the city will have to repay $41 million to the federal government.

Construction of the floodgate is part of the Cedar Rapids project partnership agreement the city entered into with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in November 2018.

U.S Sen. Chuck Grassley speaking at the floodgate groundbreaking on Oct. 8, 2019. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

“It’s starting to bring to life our flood protection system,” Mayor Brad Hart said regarding the project.

Sen. Joni Ernst recalled serving with the Iowa Army National Guard and coming into the area after the 2008 flood.

“It really makes an impact … going through that flood event and speaking with individuals in the community, those whose daily lives were impacted by the flood, those whose homes were impacted by the flood, those whose businesses were impacted by the flood,” Ernst said on Tuesday. “However, in spite of those challenges, the community rose above. … The resiliency that we saw come out of Cedar Rapids was absolutely incredible.”

Not everyone at the Tuesday event shared the upbeat tone of the official speakers. Nearby, members of Indivisible Iowa and the Cedar Rapids chapter of the Sunrise Movement highlighted the impact climate change has had on Midwestern flooding and showed their support for the Green New Deal proposal. One of the demonstrators held up a sign for Grassley and Ernst: “Floodgates alone won’t protect us from climate change.”

Demonstrators at the Oct. 8, 2019 groundbreaking draw attention to climate change’s impact on increased flooding. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

That Grassley and Ernst, both Republicans, oppose the Green New Deal isn’t surprising, but none of the Democrats in Iowa’s Congressional delegation — Dave Loebsack, Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer — support it either. Finkenauer, still in her first term representing Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, avoids talking about it.

In March, the Des Moines Register asked Finkenauer where she stands on the Green New Deal, and the representative submitted a written response that didn’t mention the proposal.

“Climate change is real and one of the most significant issues facing our world today… I am focused on making sure we repair and rebuild our infrastructure in a way that reduces its carbon footprint, makes our communities more resilient to severe weather, and creates good-paying jobs building a smarter transportation system,” she wrote.

At the ceremony on Tuesday, Finkenauer cited the increased flooding associated with climate change in her remarks and talked about the need to address the cause of such flooding.

“We must make sure that as natural disasters occur more frequently and flooding increases, that we take into account the fabric of our neighborhoods and the local community when planning for the future of mitigation,” she said. “All of our communities deserve protection and peace of mind. They deserve our strongest efforts to mitigate natural disasters and their causes.”

The 16th Avenue project is scheduled to begin this fall and conclude next year. The cost of the project is estimated at $2.4 million.

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