Column — Flood Prevention Stuck in the Pipeline

Let’s dive into the littleknown Statehouse debate over storm water management.

I know how you may feel. I was once very uninterested in storm water management. That changed in June 2008, when I watched storm water manage to swallow most of the heart of Cedar Rapids. Now storm water has my undivided attention.

That goes double for state Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, and many of his flooded-out constituents.

So Hogg is pushing for action in the final days of the 2009 legislative session on a measure that would require communities across Iowa to adopt new standards for handling storm water starting in 2013. That may not sound very interesting, until you consider that smarter storm water strategies in urban areas could help lessen flood risks for all Iowans.

Basically, Hogg and others want an existing state panel, the Water Resources Coordinating Council, expanded to include flood experts. The council would then be required to come up with recommendations on watershed and storm water management and other related issues by November.Those ideas would be submitted to lawmakers.

But as Hogg knows all too well, studies have a way of being swiftly shelved. So he also wants to mandate that communities meet any new standards by 2013, 2015 or 2017, depending on population and other factors. Also, all local, publicly funded building projects inside a 500-year flood plain would be required to meet flood mitigation and storm water management standards.

It’s complicated stuff. The goal isn’t. “We don’t want communities to go through this again,” Hogg said.

But the Legislature itself is like a big storm sewer pipe, wide at the beginning and narrow at the end. Top legislative leaders, committee chairs and others turn valves that control the flow.

This week, when Hogg and Sen. Pam Jochum, Dubuque, tried to add the storm water requirements to a flood insurance bill, Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, closed a valve. He made a procedural ruling that shot down the measure.

Now its future is in jeopardy, thanks in large part to opposition from the Iowa League of Cities. Executive director Allan Kemp said cities don’t want to be forced to meet new standards that haven’t been written yet. A study is OK, but Kemp argues the date-certain requirements are premature.

That’s an entirely reasonable argument, if you’ve never watched a roiling, muddy river rise to an astounding crest that defied history and prediction. One reason the river defied history is that development has dramatically changed the watershed that feeds it.

And although grand future levees and temporary tiger dams grab headlines when it comes to flood prevention, improving the way communities and rural areas handle runoff could have the biggest long-term impact on everyone’s flood risk.

So Hogg and his allies are arguing, correctly, that folks lobbying for more study and status quo don’t get it. And in this case, not getting it puts lives and property and taxpayer dollars at risk.

So far, the Legislature doesn’t get it. But there’s still time to open that valve.

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