Op-Ed: The Rising Tide of Flood Technology

Thousands of acres of farmland, hundreds of homes and businesses and a picturesque Delhi lake–all are the latest mud-soaked casualties of another flood-filled Iowa summer. Hopefully, it’s been a wake-up call.

While Iowa Citians somehow escaped the brunt of the most recent torrential rainstorms to cause millions of dollars of property damage across Eastern Iowa, some cast wary eyes upon a river that’s just one bad downpour from another catastrophic overflow, recalling its destructive swelling just two years earlier and begging the question: What can we do to stop flooding?

The answer is simple: nothing.

Gene Takle, director of Iowa State University’s Climate Science Initiative, has found that, as the climate changes, precipitation and heavy rain events have increased significantly in Iowa, and will likely continue to do so. That’s what we have seen this year. Before July ended, the state had already received well over 300 percent of its annual rainfall. And as more water comes from the sky, more will flow through our streets.

What we can do is prepare ourselves for future floods. That’s what researchers at the University’s Iowa Flood Center are doing, and success in its latest project could make Iowa City the nation’s center for flood research.

The federal government has created national research centers for disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, but not for flooding. Researchers at the Iowa Flood Center expect to change that.

The Center, birthed after the 2008 floods, is now working with Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources to create highly detailed maps to provide Iowans, and eventually many more Americans, with precise data that could help them stay dry during flood season.

The maps will “provide the technical expertise to help Iowa become more resilient,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D- Iowa City.

In their last session, Bolkcom’s legislative colleagues voted to dole out $10 million to the Center, assigning it a large role in developing more precise flood inundation maps using light detecting and ranging technology (LiDAR)–a project that should perk the interest of Iowans who prefer to spend their summer time sipping Coronas and soaking up rays instead of sandbagging and scrambling to save their Star Wars memorabilia.

Nathan Young, lead researcher on the Center’s end, says the project aims to provide precise data that will help “eliminate the spectrum of risk” in the floodplain, as the current method for determining flows “is not realistic” and has fallen under scrutiny.

“It will communicate flood information to the public,” Young said, adding that the project will give lawmakers more data to form policy, leading to better management of property in floodplains.

That context is sorely needed, especially after the state legislature turned down a range of proposals that aimed to stem damage to the cityscape caused by future flooding.

Staunch property rights advocates didn’t approve of plans to expand floodplains to further limit development in perpetually flood-prone areas, subscribing to the notion that it is better to have built and lost than never to have built at all.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, described this “just leave us alone” mentality as “fundamentally un-Iowan” at a June 21 seminar on flood preparedness in Marion.

While the legislative setback dealt a blow to flood researchers and other enemies of sogginess, others remain optimistic.

“The legislature saw the Flood Center as an investment in Iowa in allocating two-thirds of [the project’s] funding to it,” said Larry Weber, director of the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research-Hydroscience and Engineering department at The University of Iowa.

Weber hopes that new technology, such as the LiDAR and, most recently, the development of underwater censors to measure river levels, will bring greater certainty to forecasts and coax legislators into more closely considering floodplain legislation in their next session.

Floodplain mapping efforts have been carried out disjointedly in communities throughout the country, he said. But after completing a successful test run in Poweshiek County, the team plans to map most of Iowa’s other 98 counties and develop a model that other flood-prone states can copy–such as Tennessee, a state that is still recovering from the May floods that killed 21 people.

The floodplain mapping project, along with the Center’s other forecasting efforts, has helped it garner serious attention from the national scientific community.

“The work that we did in the first 7 to 8 months of the center had a very positive return,” said Weber.

He identifies North Carolina’s flood mapping program as the nation’s best, currently, but he warns that the Iowa center could soon eclipse the Tar Heels, with greater technology and by offering more services, including improved forecasting and economic analysis.

“We will be North Carolina and more,” Weber said.

Weber also feels positive about the flood center’s relationship with the DNR, describing it as “outstanding.” DNR director Richard Leopold echoed Weber’s sentiment.

“It’s really refreshing,” he said. “We’ve been working hard to have the proper information to make good decisions.”

Leopold said Iowans should make sure to remember the hardship of 2008.

As summer comes to an end, with rivers still swollen and property still damaged, remembering the past shouldn’t be difficult. But then again, maybe not–Hawkeye football is back, after all.

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