Iowa City halts plans on East Side Levee

BY NICK HASSETT | MARCH 29, 2013 5:00 AM

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The first steps for the Iowa City East Side Levee, which the city originally slated for construction beginning in May, were well under way. The preliminary budget for the project had been secured, and $3.9 million Community Development Block Grant funding obtained.

But there was one problem: The project, previously estimated to cost $3.9 million, now has a $13.1 million price tag.

It was a problem city staff and MMS Consultants, which conducted the cost estimate and preliminary design, attempted to explain at the second and final community meeting for the East Side Levee Project at the Iowa City Municipal Airport.

“We’ve looked at ways to try to keep the project going, but we just don’t have the funding for the project, and we’re not moving forward,” said Jason Reichart, the city’s special projects engineer.

Paul Anderson of MMS Consultants said the preliminary estimate was based on the other levee project estimates.

“We were extrapolating from previous work [on the levees],” he said. “Some things got missed. Hindsight’s a pretty good thing, but it’s not helping us today.”

The project would have built a levee from Highway 6 south to the CRANDIC railroad bridge on the east bank of the Iowa River. The city commissioned the East Side Levee Project in response to the extensive damage sustained during the floods of 1993 and 2008.

The main cause for the increased cost estimate was the addition of two water pumps, necessary for the levee to function as intended and prevent water from collecting behind the levee and in storm drains. The pumps would have cost an estimated $5.2 million apiece.

However, other issues also affected the project. Anderson said the construction of the levee would have been more complex than originally expected, with several areas along the levee being unsuitable for the earthen flood bank in their current state.

“There’s a whole lot of things we discovered [after the initial estimate],” Anderson said. “The anticipation was it could be avoided, but the pumps really were needed. I guess you could say the stars weren’t lined up right.”

It was a hard pill to swallow for those that attended the meeting, many of whom owned property that was damaged in the 2008 flood.

“It’s exasperating to us that nothing is going to be done,” said Dave Clark, an Iowa City resident. “The word ‘can’t’ isn’t in my vocabulary; there must be something the city can do about this.”

He was particularly concerned about an amendment to an ordinance the council approved in 2010 that requires all new or “substantially improved” residential structures located in the floodplain to have the lowest floor elevated a minimum of one foot above the 500-year flood hazard elevation.

Clark thinks the ordinance requires property owners in the floodplain to incur additional costs and burdens if they have to rebuild their property, and without the protection of a levee, the city was forcing the costs on them.

“I’m very anti-government dealing in my affairs,” he said. “If they aren’t going to do anything [about the levee], then leave us alone.”

Some thought the city should try to salvage what funds had already been granted for the project to construct some part of the levee proposal, but Anderson said the levee project couldn’t be constructed piecemeal.

“There really isn’t a way to phase it; it just needs to be built,” he said. “But it’s set up so we don’t lose what we’ve already done.”

Barbara Schelar and Russell Karkowski said they were both incredibly disappointed and surprised at the news.

“I thought it was surprising that people didn’t know about the problem with the back flooding before,” Karkowski said.

Schelar hoped that if the city wasn’t going to move forward with the East Side levee, it would have better information available for the next time the river floods.

“Hopefully, with what we learned last time, we can do a better job next time,” she said. “Because we might not avoid the experience of the water again.”

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