Iowa’s congressional delegation braces for back-to-back flooding

Aerial view of flooded Hamburg Iowa in 2019
Homes and businesses were surrounded by floodwater on March 20, 2019 in Hamburg, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Iowans have scarcely had time to recover from last year’s river flooding, which inundated towns from Hamburg to Davenport and points in between, but meteorologists are already warning that flooding is likely this year, too.

In response, Iowa’s congressional delegation is focused on short-term concerns, such as making sure that disaster relief efforts get to residents quickly and helping communities shore up flood protection infrastructure before the waters rise again.

The state’s senators and House members are developing long-term plans, too, but those ideas are getting pushed to the backburner by the prospect of back-to-back floods.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley is a Republican from New Hartford, Iowa.

“With flood recovery from last year still ongoing, I’m continuing to work with folks in Iowa, the state government and the relevant federal agencies to make sure recovery and rebuilding can continue,” Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a statement.

Grassley and other members of the state’s congressional delegation report that they work well with each other and the state government when disaster strikes. They often collaborate with lawmakers from other flood-prone states on legislation.

But they also have different priorities, usually relating to the areas they represent or the committees on which they serve.

Grassley, for example, leads the Senate Finance Committee. From that perch, he can ensure that Iowans affected by natural disasters get special tax benefits. When Congress passed a $19 billion disaster relief bill last summer, he made sure that farmers who lost grain stored on their farms could get federal help to make up for flood-related losses.

“Looking ahead, I’m pushing a few pieces of legislation that would improve flood control and mitigation on both sides of the state as well as get ahold of data that strengthens Iowa’s position when it comes to prioritization of flood control and funding,” Grassley said. “With this year’s flood season coming up, I’m also keeping pressure on the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to do what it needs to do.”

Shaping river infrastructure

Meanwhile, GOP Sen. Joni Ernst is involved in shaping legislation that specifically deals with the river infrastructure. That’s because she sits on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees highways, waterways and other major infrastructure. Ernst held a special committee meeting in southwest Iowa last April to focus members on challenges faced by communities in that region.

She has been especially vocal in calling for changes that she says would make it easier for rural communities to get the flood protection they deserve.

Tractor in flooded Hamburg, Iowa, 2019
A vintage tractor sits in flood water on March 20, 2019 in Hamburg, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As a member of the public works committee, Ernst will have a chance to shape a key piece of legislation that addresses river navigation and flooding. The Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes the Corps’ civil works activities and directs its practices, is up for renewal this year.

The senators working on the bill have not yet publicly released details of their proposal, but House Democrats included it in the outline of a $760 billion infrastructure plan they put forward in January. They want the package to include $7 billion to address the backlog in construction of water resources projects in that package.

Last year, the Corps, which manages river navigation and environmental projects, identified a $98 billion backlog of projects that have been authorized for completion but are either still under construction or are awaiting construction funding.

While the extra money could be a boon to Iowa river projects, tying river improvements to the rest of the infrastructure package could make it harder for the overall package to pass. That’s because Congress has struggled for a decade to find money for highways, transit and other surface transportation projects that are included in the Democrats’ infrastructure package.

Many federal lawmakers don’t want to raise gas taxes or use other sources of revenue to pay for increasingly expensive infrastructure projects, so Congress has relied in recent years on short-term solutions like taking money designated for other agencies and redirecting it to road spending.

But Iowa lawmakers have looked at other short-term solutions to improving flood management infrastructure.

Ernst and U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat representing southwest Iowa, worked together with legislators from other states to push a proposal that would give the Corps the authority to determine whether temporary levees or other flood-control structures should be made permanent.

Under the bill, the agency would have to determine the likelihood that temporary structures would have to be rebuilt later. The Corps would also be able to waive a local government’s share of the costs for building such structures in small communities.

Head shot of Cindy Axne
U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne is a Democrat who represents Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District.

The legislation came in the wake of last year’s flooding in Hamburg. The town erected temporary levees in 2011 to protect against floods but later had to tear them down because they lacked Corps approval. “That kind of impediment to protecting their town is unacceptable, and I’m glad that my colleagues in Congress are working with me to help remedy this issue,” Axne said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat from southeastern Iowa, said in an interview that Iowa’s members of Congress are eager to help each other on a bipartisan basis. Loebsack takes special interest in western Iowa because he grew up there.

When floods hit Sioux City two years ago, Loebsack reached out to the area’s congressman, GOP Rep. Steve King. “I told him, ‘Steve, I grew up in Sioux City. We have a lot of expertise that we can draw upon as an office because of the 2008 flood.’ So my staff cooperated with his staff and gave them pointers, and I did the same thing with Steve himself,” Loebsack said.

“We have to take a watershed approach to this problem,” Loebsack added. He pointed to last year’s disaster relief bill, which helped Cedar Rapids move forward with long-awaited flood control measures.

The Corps already takes that approach, said Loebsack, who is retiring after this term. But he said more needs to be done.

One possibility: Give farmers incentives to allow more wetlands on their property. That, he said, would slow down the flow of water into rivers after major rainfalls or snow melts, while also filtering the water of pollutants before it headed downstream.

Farmers need to be involved, as should communities along the Cedar, Iowa and Mississippi Rivers, Loebsack said. “It shouldn’t be just Cedar Rapids worrying about Cedar Rapids.”