Tough Decision about Building a New Levee

In the late spring of 2008, Iowa City and other cities in east-central Iowa were struck with a very large flood. It was well in excess of a “hundred year flood,” or more accurately a flood that has a 1 percent probability of occurring in any given year.

In addition to many buildings in the University of Iowa’s “Arts Campus” and other structures, two residential neighborhoods were partially flooded, both of them north of downtown. One of them, Parkview Terrace, is located on the south/west side of the Iowa River. Most of the homes in the floodplain portion of it have subsequently been purchased and removed. The other (consisting of 92 condominiums in Idyllwild, nine single family houses located along Taft Speedway right next to the river, and Parkview Church) is located on the north/east side of the river, just opposite from Parkview.

For the past 3+ years the Iowa City Council has been considering the possibility of constructing a levee or floodwall to protect Idyllwild and the church, but not the homes along Taft Speedway, from future floods. This effort has included detailed analysis of a range of physical levees/floodwalls costing $8.1 M to 13.3 M, with a federal Community Development Block Grant expected to provide $8 M of the total. In light of the consultant’s report, the city staff recommended construction of an $8.1 M levee that would provide protection against a 0.01 probability flood plus 3 feet.

On the evening of November 27, 2012, the City Council held a public hearing concerning a resolution that would authorize construction of the staff’s recommended alternative. It then voted on the resolution. The resolution failed, with 2 members voting in favor and 5 against.

I was one of the five who voted not to build the levee. The text that follows is the one I used when explaining my vote.

“This is a difficult decision about which people have very strong and conflicting perspectives. I want to thank all those who have phoned or written us, and especially the many people I’ve had a chance to talk with face-to-face over the past many months. I have tried to approach this with an open mind, to attend to diverse views, and to come up with the wisest and fairest decision I am capable of.

Let me explain my reasoning and conclusion. I’ll just touch on the high points, and would be happy to expand on each of the points later.

  • First, Idyllwild is located in a floodplain. Private developers should not have transformed it into a residential neighborhood.
  • Second, the City Council made a policy mistake when it approved development of the area twenty years ago.
  • Third, people who bought condominiums there prior to 2008 should have understood that there was some risk their property would be damaged by flooding. Understanding there was such a risk, they should have purchased flood insurance. Most did not.
  • Fourth, like other Iowa City residents whose homes and buildings were damaged by the flood, Idyllwild residents and Parkview Church experienced considerable physical loss, financial harm, and emotional trauma as a result of the 2008 flood.
  • Fifth, the best course of action would have been to remove those buildings from the floodplain through buyouts as has been done on the other side of the river; however, Idyllwild condominium owners were not eligible for a buyout using either FEMA or Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funds.
  • Sixth, a new floodwall or levee will not provide perfect protection. As a recent National Academy of Science report states, “In the short term, the presence of the levee may reduce risk to the local hazard; however, if the upper limit to the capability of these structures is ever exceeded, the consequences to those with homes or businesses behind the levee can be catastrophic.”
  • Seventh, the recommended levee would leave seven [I should have said nine] Taft Speedway homes on the “wet” side of the levee
  • Eighth, I’m persuaded that construction of a levee would have miniscule effect on the height of floodwaters in “Mosquito Flats” [Parkview Terrace] across the river.
  • Ninth, using public funds to protect Idyllwild and Parkview Church with a floodwall or levee would be to privatize benefits while socializing costs. Assuming that 92 condo owners would equally benefit from the $8.1 M levee recommended by the staff, each would be receiving a subsidy of $88,000.
  • Tenth, almost half of the condos were purchased them after the 2008 flood at highly discounted prices. People who purchased these condos are not “flood victims” who deserve the public’s help.
  • And last, spending $8 M of CDBG funds on a levee designed to protect Idyllwild properties might be inappropriate or unwise use of those funds.

For these reasons, I do not think we should build a floodwall or levee. We should instead:

  • Instruct the staff to explore the viability of amending the City Code to require businesses and residences that own structures in the floodplain in and near Idyllwild to have flood insurance.
  • Instruct the staff to explore the legal and financial feasibility of having the City provide one-time financial payments to persons and businesses that owned condos in Idyllwild prior to the 2008 flood, whose condos sustained damage from the flood, who wanted but were unable to accept a buyout, and who continue to own condos. I don’t know how large such payments should be. But something on the order of $40,000 per household might be reasonable to partially compensate them for loss of property value, to purchase flood insurance, and to make it easier for them to move if they want.
  • And instruct the staff to identify alternative uses of the CDBG funds that would directly benefit low-to-moderate income households.”
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