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Des Moines Register

Des Moines Register: Flooding has slammed every Iowa county since 1988, some as many as 17 times

Published / by Donnelle Eller

Read this article (complete with photos) in the Des Moines Register

QUASQUETON, Ia. — Puttering down the Wapsipinicon River in his fishing boat, Ronnie Wolfe points to a small backwater channel that’s similar to one on land he owns a couple miles south of this northeast Iowa town.

He wants to restore the channel on his 80 acres to an oxbow, a flood “off-ramp” that slows raging river waters.

Wolfe hopes to get funding for the project through a $100 million federal grant that’s testing the effectiveness of flood and water-quality practices in nine Iowa watersheds. The intent is to curb the flooding that is wreaking havoc in the state with increasing frequency.

“With more and more concrete and severe weather, I don’t know where the end is if we don’t start doing these things,” said Wolfe, who owns a home and business along the Wapsipinicon, a 300-mile river that empties into the Mississippi River north of Davenport.

The state ranks fourth nationally in the number of floods since 1988, according to the study.

“We have a problem,” said Witold Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center, at the University of Iowa.

The state has incurred 951 federal flood-related disaster declarations over nearly three decades, slamming every county in Iowa.

Some counties have been walloped as many as 17 times, according to the study.

“These are not floods of a lifetime,” happening once every 100 or 500 years, said Larry Weber, executive associate dean at the UI College of Engineering.

“We’re repeatedly impacted by floods,” disasters that are an economic drain on the state, said Weber, who co-founded the Iowa Flood Center with Krajewski.

Instead of just reacting to disasters, Iowa needs to look at long-term investments to reduce flooding and its damage, said Weber and Krajewski, who conducted the study with Antonio Arenas Amado, a UI assistant research engineer.

And an added benefit from the spending, researchers said, would be cutting Iowa’s water pollution, reducing the phosphorus that leads to toxic algal blooms and nitrates that can make water dangerous to drink.

Weber estimates that tackling the state’s flooding and water-quality problems would cost an estimated $10 billion over five decades to fix.

Without slowing and holding water in upstream farming areas, “the losses are simply going to go higher and higher and higher,” said Weber, who helped land the $100 million federal grant.

“Working with agriculture, we could transform the landscape in Iowa,” he said.

The scientists are sharing the impact with lawmakers, but Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the message isn’t fully landing.

“We made some progress,” he said. “There’s much more that needs to be done.”

‘Catch the water where it falls’

So far, Iowa’s flood work has been very focused on local responses, helping residents and businesses repair damage and move homes and buildings out of flood plains where possible.

For example, state, local and federal taxpayers have spent $175 million removing about 4,500 homes from Iowa flood plains since 1990.

That’s been effective, said John Benson, legislative liaison for Iowa Homeland & Emergency Management.

For example, removing 2,000 homes in eastern Iowa saved taxpayers $68 million in 2016 flooding, recouping about 90 percent of the $79 million spent removing the homes.

Historically, it takes three or four flood disasters to regain investments made through flood prevention efforts, Benson said.

But working upstream gives the state another way to approach its flooding  problem, he said.

About $31.5 million from the federal grant is going toward flood-reduction projects in Dubuque and to help residents repair homes repeatedly hit with rising waters.

Another $40 million is being used in eight other watersheds to build wetlands, terraces, ponds and buffer strips, among other infrastructure.

“We want to do anything we can do to catch the water where it falls and retain it, so it’s not entering the river — or entering the river at a slower rate,” Benson said.

“We can use the land to help manage a flood. … That’s the future,” he said.

That’s important as Iowa faces another flood season.

Iowa faces a 50/50 chance of another round of flooding this spring, with rivers in northern Iowa already filled, Benson said.

A determining factor will be “how fast that snow-pack in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota” melts, Benson said. “That can change quickly.”

Iowa governor Terry Branstad visited Lyon and Sioux county to assess damage and visit with victims of flooding in Northwest Iowa on Wednesday, June 18, 2014.

‘The next big disaster’

Amado, the UI research engineer, said flooding is both “an urban and rural problem.”

Since 1988, flood damage to Iowa homes, factories and other property reached $13.5 billion, while corn, soybeans and other crop losses reached $4.1 billion.

Weber said upstream flood mitigation efforts help offset Iowa’s “100-year practice of draining the land.”

For decades, farmers have used underground drainage tiles to more rapidly move water into Iowa’s streams and rivers, making the state’s rich soil suitable for growing crops.

Cities like Des Moines “are increasingly realizing that there are limitations to what they can achieve when it comes to flood protection,” said Amado, of the university’s IIHR–Hydroscience & Engineering institute.

The Iowa Flood Center is working with Des Moines officials to assess what kind of protection the city could receive from flood-mitigation practices installed upstream.

“Imagine that you can build flood walls high enough — what about the communities downstream,” Amado said. “They will be impacted.”

One option to finance the $10 billion needed to tackle comprehensive flood mitigation is a proposal to increase the state sales tax three-eighths of 1 cent, Weber said.

A diverse group, including environmentalists, farmers and hunters, back adding the tax to generate about $188 million annually to boost water quality, outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat restoration, among other initiatives.

Sixty-three percent of Iowans voted for a constitutional amendment in 2010 to create a separate trust fund to clean the water and improve farm soil and wildlife habitat.

Republican lawmakers, who control the House and Senate, have resisted increasing the sales tax. Instead, in January, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a $282 million water-quality package that environmentalists have criticized as inadequate to solve Iowa’s water problems.

Hogg said Iowa lawmakers are so focused on tax cuts this year that they’ve struggled to cover “even basic government services,” let alone look at long-term investments.

“It’s upstream management and retention and work we need to do to safeguard property downriver,” he said. “You’ve got to prepare for that next, big disaster.”

‘The river is my livelihood’

Wolfe knows his one oxbow isn’t enough to stop the Wapsipinicon River from flooding.

But he believes joining with neighbors throughout his watershed and others in the region could make a difference in the amount of devastation that downstream towns and residents see.

Buchanan County is one of nine Iowa counties that are among the top 15 percent nationally with the highest number of flood disasters per square mile.

“When it floods, I can’t drive to my house … that happens three or four days a year,” said Wolfe, whose home sits on a ridge above the river.

He has a similar setup at his restaurant and bar, Wolfey’s Wapsi Outback, which sits high enough off the river that it hasn’t flooded.

“I’m in a flood zone now. I never used to be,” said Wolfe, whose personal and professional life revolves around the Wapsipinicon River.

In addition to his concerns about flooding, Wolfe is worried about the health of the Wapsipinicon, in particular the damage soil carried into the river can cause, including  increased silting and high levels of nutrients.

Hundreds of his customers come to the region each year to bike, kayak, fish and hunt on or along the river.

“The river is my livelihood,” said Wolfe, who pointed out a bald eagle on a recent spring day.

“I live on the river. I work on the river,” he said. “My whole life I’ve spent on that river. It’s a huge part of my life.”

Position Opening: Upper Wapsipinicon River Watershed Management Authority Project Coordinator

Published / by Brad Crawford

Upper Wapsipinicon River Watershed Management Authority

Announcement Date: 4/28/2017
Application Closing Date: 05/12/2017
Anticipated Date of Hire: 06/01/2017

Buchanan Soil and Water Conservation District, in cooperation with the Upper Wapsipinicon River Watershed Management Authority (WMA), seeks a self-motivated, experienced Watershed Project Coordinator to implement the Iowa Watershed Approach project for the Upper Wapsipinicon River Watershed. The project will address areas of environmental concern that may include but are not limited to flood reduction, nutrient loading, sedimentation, and other hydrologic, soil conservation and water quality issues for the Upper Wapsipinicon River WMA. The ideal candidate will have experience in watershed planning and/or project management, an ability to interpret scientific concepts clearly and proficiently, and a demonstrated capacity to work with diverse stakeholder groups, including local public officials, NGOs, landowners, farmers, businesses, and the general public.

Position Summary:

The project coordinator will serve as the primary point of contact for the Iowa Watershed Approach program in the Upper Wapsipinicon River Watershed. The multi-faceted nature of this program will require that the successful candidate have a diverse skill set and the ability to coordinate multiple activities with overlapping deadlines. The successful candidate should be well-versed in watershed planning and management concepts, have the technical capacity to interpret water resource data and information, and strong communication skills.

The employee will manage and coordinate, as needed, the implementation of flood resiliency conservation projects and associated conservation planning, information and education outreach programs, and other related activities essential to the IWA, the WMA and its membership. The coordinator will also work with Northeast Iowa RC&D as they develop a WMA disaster resiliency watershed plan for the watershed. The project coordinator will be closely involved with overseeing a variety of activities. Specific tasks may include:

  • Stakeholder engagement: : The project coordinator will in many respects be the face of the IWA program in the Upper Wapsipinicon River Watershed. In order for the program to be successful, there must be support from all levels of watershed stakeholders including city and county government, landowners, residents and businesses, agricultural producers, concerned citizens, non-governmental organizations, and the many partners that are involved with the IWA program statewide and locally. To that end, the project coordinator will research, plan, and implement an information and education outreach program to raise awareness about the IWA program, encourage participation in the planning process and the implementation of practices.
  • Implementation of the watershed management plan: The project coordinator will perform professional and technical duties to advance the goals of the watershed management plan. These duties will include implementing the information and education outreach plan and assisting with the implementation of best management practices designed to increase flood resilience in the project area. The coordinator will work one-on-one with producers and other decision makers to facilitate adoption and implementation of the practices identified in the watershed management plan. The coordinator will also help landowners navigate the process of signing up for cost-share assistance through the IWA program.
  • Project evaluation: The coordinator will evaluate project activities on an ongoing basis, working with local partners and stakeholders to prioritize current and future project activities. Use current technology and tools, such as GIS, to identify resource needs and identify innovative solutions. Utilize monitoring and measurement techniques to evaluate progress toward meeting project goals and implementation of solutions. Assist the WMA in identifying other potential flood reduction and water quality programs and assisting in applying for funds through those programs.
  • Overall project coordination: The IWA program will have multiple activities on-going throughout the five-year program. The coordinator will oversee efforts to collaborate with appropriate agencies, groups, and individuals that can affect the success of the project. The coordinator will plan and lead group meetings as well as one-on-one meetings with project sponsors, WMA members, local cooperators, and various WMA stakeholders. The project coordinator will help with organizing and publicizing meetings, will maintain a clear understanding of project timelines and budgets, and will be the point of contact for IWA program partners, as well as contractors and consultants hired to work on different aspects of the program.
  • Project Reporting and Administration: The coordinator will provide administrative support and manage the project to maintain quality control and maximize involvement of local advisors, WMA members and staff of program partners. Work with project advisory groups and WMA members to complete annual plans of operations and budgets for the project. Work with the project administrator on completing and submitting all required financial and progress reporting documents in accordance with IEDA and HUD contract deadlines.

Applicant Qualifications:

The ideal candidate will be a highly motivated professional with strong communication skills and an ability to take the initiative on watershed outreach, project coordination, and implementation of conservation projects. The Coordinator will need to be flexible and willing to take on new tasks and responsibilities as program opportunities evolve. The position requires a conscientious individual who will provide follow-through on all areas of responsibility.

The Coordinator must have knowledge of ecosystem and watershed concepts, watershed planning, water resource issues, flood mitigation programs and strategies, and watershed improvement practices. Some experience with habitat restoration or agricultural conservation practices, volunteer management, community engagement, environmental education, and/or outreach is also required. The Coordinator must be able to communicate clearly and effectively with a broad range of individuals. The position requires a college degree in Environmental Science, or a related discipline, and relevant job experience in the watershed management field. A working knowledge of basic state and federal agricultural conservation programs and successful grant writing experience is preferred.

Position Information:

This is a full-time position that will be in effect over the remaining 4.5 years of the Iowa Watershed Approach program. The successful applicant will be housed in the Buchanan SWCD office and will adhere to the employment policies and benefit system of the SWCD. Primary work hours will be during normal business hours (Monday – Friday, 8:00 am – 4:30 pm), however, early morning, evening and weekend work, with occasional overnight trips, will be regularly required throughout the year to meet with local leaders and boards of political subdivisions, watershed committees, conservation districts, interested stakeholders, various state and federal agencies, and to attend trainings. The successful applicant must have a valid driver’s license and vehicle available for use.

Compensation and Benefits:

  • Competitive salary commensurate with education, experience, and skills.
  • Supportive communities and partner organizations
  • Benefit package including mileage reimbursement, sick/vacation time, paid holidays, and IPERS.

Application Process:

  • To apply, please submit each of the following via email to Paul Berland, Project Administrator, Northeast Iowa RC&D
    • cover letter
    • resume
    • writing sample
    • three professional references
  • The writing sample should be from a newsletter, press release or other outreach piece, or a technical report on relevant environmental issues. If not available, another piece may be submitted that conveys the applicant’s ability to clearly interpret the natural world to the general public.

Buchanan SWCD does not discriminate against any qualified employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, familial status, physical or mental disability. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental disability, or familial status.

WMA Project Coordinator Position – Upper Wapsi River WMA (PDF)

The Daily Erosion Project

Published / by Brad Crawford

The Daily Erosion Project (DEP) estimates precipitation, runoff, sheet and rill erosion, and hillslope delivery in near real time, on over 2000 watersheds in the Midwest (Figure 1). It does this by running the Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP) model with a combination of remotely-sensed precipitation weather stations, remotely-sensed crop and residue cover, remotely-sensed topography, and soils databases.

It is an update and expansion to the Iowa Daily Erosion Project (Cruse et al., 2006) that is designed to further investigate large scale erosion dynamics while maintaining hillslope level input resolution. The DEP has a climate database extending from 2007  to the present day, enabling investigation of single event and single year runoff and soil erosion dynamics over a large time range and spatial extent.

Building a Stormwater Quality Management Program in Readlyn

Published / by Brad Crawford

The City of Readlyn recently received $70,000 from the Iowa Water Quality Initiative Urban Conservation Project to be used to support a local partnership brought together with the common goal of building a stormwater quality management program within the City of Readlyn. This project will partner with the SRF Sponsored Projects Program to install a series of bioretention cells in an area of town which has been historically subject to large stormwater runoff volumes.

Projects funded by the Iowa WQI Urban Conservation Project will focus on conservation measures that capture and allow stormwater to be absorbed into the ground and reduce a property’s contribution to water quality degradation, stream flows and flooding.  They also include strong partnerships and outreach/education components to disseminate information to promote increased awareness and adoption of available practices and technologies for achieving reductions in nutrient loads to surface waters.

Full Announcement

Learn More About Bioretention Cells in Iowa:


Master River Stewards Program to be Offered Summer 2017 in Wapsipinicon River Watershed

Published / by Brad Crawford

Iowa Rivers Revival’s Master River Stewards Program is a comprehensive river course that will focus on riverine systems, including skills to paddle and navigate rivers, restore aquatic habitat, improve water quality, and understand policies related to floodplains, river protection and restoration.

The Master River Steward program will build on a network of river experts in various partner agencies and organizations. It will help adult learners collaborate to protect and improve Iowa’s rivers, so that current and future generations can enjoy these resources.

Session Topics

  1. Watersheds & Ag Policies
  2. River Form & Function
  3. Navigating Iowa’s Waters/Wildlife & River Chemistry/Monitoring
  4. Stream/Riparian Zone Restoration & Impacts on Fish/Wildlife
  5. Agricultural Production & Farm Waste/Water Treatment Plant Visits
  6. Review & Potential Projects
  7. Post Training/Follow-Up, Project Sharing & Evaluation

Registration Deadline: May 2, 2017 (please inquire about availability after this date)
Contact: Sondra Cabell, Naturalist,, (319) 636-2617

$96.9 million Iowa Watershed Approach shifts into high gear

Published / by Lynn Anderson Davy

Cities, counties, and other groups are organizing regional watershed management authorities (WMAs) and hiring project coordinators as the Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA), a $96.9 million program, enters its first official year and kicks off work to reduce flood risks and improve water quality across the state.

It was roughly a year ago that the governor’s office announced the grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Iowa’s proposal, The Iowa Watershed Approach for Urban and Rural Resilience, received the fourth largest award, coming in behind New Orleans, New York, and Virginia.

A key player behind the grant win was the Iowa Flood Center (IFC) at the University of Iowa, which helped develop and implement the IWA. In the past year, IFC representatives and other partners have fanned out across the state to meet with residents, elected officials, and conservation advocates to talk about details of the program, including cost-share assistance available for the construction of farm ponds, wetlands, and grassed waterways to manage runoff and reduce flooding.

More recently, as the WMAs start to take shape, IFC officials say they have been encouraged to see local residents stepping up to take control of watershed actions.

“They have really taken ownership and are adapting the program to meet their individual watershed needs,” says Larry Weber, IFC co-founder. “This is exactly the kind of local stewardship we envisioned.”

Weber says he’s looking forward to reaching other milestones as well, including the addition in 2017 of several new watershed coordinators and the creation of at least three new WMAs.

“We will also be identifying locations for the construction of projects such as ponds, wetlands, and more,” Weber says. “It’s all very exciting.”

Iowa has been hit hard by flooding in recent years. From 2011 to 2013, heavy rain prompted eight separate presidential disaster declarations in 73 counties, covering more than 70 percent of the state. A record-setting flood in 2008 triggered federal disaster relief, including funding used by the IFC for a pilot venture, the Iowa Watersheds Project, which ended in 2016.

“We know we need to move the needle, but therein lie some big questions: What projects and structures do we implement to reduce nutrient runoff, and how do we measure their success over time? We’re ready to get some answers to those questions.”

The nine watersheds participating in the program are the Middle Cedar, East and West Nishnabotna, Clear Creek, Dubuque/Bee Branch, English River, North Raccoon, Upper Iowa, and Upper Wapsipinicon. Progress in each watershed varies: Some are establishing WMAs; others are in the process of hiring coordinators, an important first step to commence watershed projects.

“We just hired our coordinator and he’s the one who will build relationships with land owners and execute the watershed plan,” says Todd Wiley, Benton County supervisor and chairman of the Middle Cedar WMA. According to Wiley, the federal grant’s five-year time frame means “there’s a bit of pressure to get things going. The clock is definitely ticking.”

“We really want to get the ball rolling,” says Michelle Franks, executive director of Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development, Inc., who is working to build a WMA (sometimes referred to as a “coalition”) on the East and West Nishnabotna River. “A watershed plan is something that has been needed in southwest Iowa for some time. We feel like the time is now.”

For Franks, the process of getting the East and West Nishnabotna River WMA finalized has been a bit like “herding cats” because there are so many entities that must be included in the initial membership invite.

“We’ve got 48 towns, 12 counties, and 13 soil and water conservation districts in our watershed boundaries,” says Franks. “It’s been a real challenge to reach out to each of them and to explain the program and what we are trying to do.”

On the North Raccoon River, James Patrick, Storm Lake city manager, is also working to get a local WMA formed. About a dozen entities have joined the coalition so far, with more expected to sign on before the end of March. The focus of the North Raccoon River WMA will be on reducing floods and controlling nutrient runoff, which will improve water quality.

“We’re not going to make much headway unless we have a collaboration of efforts,” says Patrick.

Back on the Middle Cedar River, Wiley says his group is excited about welcoming its new coordinator.

“We have a lot of rural acreages in our watershed area, and many residents are concerned about water quality,” Wiley says. “We know we need to move the needle, but therein lie some big questions: What projects and structures do we implement to reduce nutrient runoff, and how do we measure their success over time? We’re ready to get some answers to those questions.”

The IWA is a collaboration of numerous agencies, universities, nonprofits, and municipalities. See the full list here.

For more information, visit