Flood Center expands sensor networks

BY BEN MARKS | OCTOBER 22, 2014 5:00 AM

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This coming spring, when snow melts and rising waters threaten Iowa homes and communities, more Iowans than ever will be able to receive advanced warnings and move possessions out of the way.

However, businesses in Iowa City, such as New Pioneer Co-Op or City Carton Recycling, were some of the first to reap the benefits of flood sensors.

New Pioneer Co-op, 22 S. Van Buren St., is beside Ralston Creek and must constantly monitor for any signs of increased water flow.

“The creek is subject to flooding, and it’s usually a flash-flood situation,” New Pioneer operations manager Craig Albright said.

When the Iowa Flood Center installed its first flood sensors, New Pioneer requested one be placed on Ralston Creek to help store officials monitor the water level.

“The Iowa River is separate from Ralston Creek, so if the river is flooding, that doesn’t mean the creek is and [vice versa],” Albright said.

This fall, Daniel Ceynar, a project engineer for the Iowa Flood Center, will travel to bridges across Iowa to install the more than 50 new flood sensors.

The Flood Center was established by the Legislature as a result of the 2008 floods, when the state became aware the current flood monitoring system was inadequate.

“One of the questions asked at the time was, with the current level of technology, why didn’t we know more about what was happening,” Ceynar said.

Of the 250 sensors the Flood Center will have running by the end of this fall, 150 of them have been funded by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources at a cost of approximately $3,500 each.

Andy Ockenfels, the CEO of City Carton Recycling, said he has also benefited from the flood sensors, because around half of his company’s 11.5-acre property lies in the Iowa River floodplain.

Prior to the sensor network, Ochenfels said, if employees calculated that the property would be flooded, they had to empty half the warehouses and move the inventory to higher ground.

That process, he said, took up to a day to complete and cost $10,000 to $15,000 in lost production, hauling, labor, transportation, and the rerouting of incoming material.

Now, Ochenfels said, based on the center’s accurate flood prediction models, the company can now move inventory out in stages rather than all at once, and that has cut costs per floods to around 10 percent of the previous cost.

“That we no longer have to go all in and get everything out, and then wait to see if it actually goes up or not is a huge benefit for us as a private business living here on the river,” he said.

Rick Fosse, the director of Iowa City Public Works, said the flood network has also proven an effective tool indeed for getting information out to individuals and communities.

“During the floods of 2013 and 2014, the number of calls we received was down significantly from what we got in 2008 because of the information from the center that was out there,” he said.

The automated sensors, Ceynar said, were designed by the center to be as durable, self-sustaining, and as close to zero maintenance as possible.

Ceynar said flood measurements are taken every 15 minutes and sent to a website, where it is updated in real time. People and businesses such as the Co-op can monitor the data as they wish.

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