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A Watershed Moment

Posted on August 19th, 2013
IIHR Director Larry Weber (right) leads the Iowa Watersheds Project, which is focused on how farm ponds and other constructed improvements can make a difference in reducing flood damage. Team members include: (l to r) Chad Drake, Sara Steussy, Nick Thomas, Marian Muste, Matt Wunsch, and Will Klingner.

IIHR Director Larry Weber (right) leads the Iowa Watersheds Project, which is focused on how farm ponds and other constructed improvements can make a difference in reducing flood damage. Team members include: (l to r) Chad Drake, Sara Steussy, Nick Thomas, Marian Muste, Matt Wunsch, and Will Klingner.

In 2009, Iowans were grappling with difficult questions in the wake of devastating floods that had washed through Eastern Iowa a year earlier. One positive result was the formation of the Water Resources Coordinating Council (WRCC), a group of experts and leaders that developed a list of 22 flood-related recommendations for the Iowa Legislature. In 2010, the Iowa Legislature passed three of those recommendations, but without funding. One of these proposals came back to life and actually received funding, without any additional legislative action. That $8.8M miracle resulted in the Iowa Watersheds Project.

A Fateful Phone Call

In August 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made money available to states that were federally-declared disaster areas in 2008. Iowa received more funds than any other state, largely because of the innovative responses it had shown in flood recovery — including the creation of the Iowa Flood Center at IIHR.

When Susan Judkins of the Rebuild Iowa Office called to give IIHR Director Larry Weber the news, he responded, “Well, if the state is interested in any more innovations, I’d be happy to help.”

Two days later, Weber got a second phone call. “What did you mean by ‘more innovations?’” asked Ron Dardis, then-director of the Rebuild Iowa Office. Weber answered with the first thing that came to mind — the unfunded legislation, and specifically watershed-level research. Dardis asked Weber to begin developing a cost estimate and project description, but before he could comply, Dardis called again to say that $8.8M had been allocated for the watershed research project.

Today the Iowa Watersheds Project is well underway. Weber is leading a team that includes IIHR Research Engineer Marian Muste and IFC Research Support Coordinator Sara Steussy, as well as four graduate students. Weber is proud that the Iowa Flood Center was able to acquire the funding without going back to the legislature, hat in hand. “They did their work — now we will do ours. I think it was just absolutely outstanding.”

Where Does the Rain Go?

As planning for the Iowa Watersheds Project was getting underway, Weber says he wanted to make sure the effort included funding to build improvements in the watersheds that could make a measurable difference.

Weber says the project has three components, all essential: the hydrologic assessment, building the improvements, and proving that they work. Without any one of those elements, the value of the effort drops off sharply. “At the end of the day, we wouldn’t be any smarter,” Weber says.

In 2012, the team assembled a watershed selection committee that represented many viewpoints and stakeholders from across the state. The
committee analyzed proposals from nine watersheds and selected four to participate in the project, each representing a different geographical and topographical area, as well as a different land use pattern.

The first step is the hydrologic assessment, which Steussy defines as modeling to help us understand the movement of water in the watershed. “When rain falls, where does it end up?” she asks. The hydrologic assessment will use computational modeling to identify areas
in the watershed where the constructed improvements will have the most impact on reducing downstream flood damage.

Graduate students Nick Thomas, Matt Wunsch, Chad Drake, and Will Klingner use computational models to represent the terrain, land use, geography, etc., in each of the four watersheds. They’re also collecting data and further developing the model.

It’s rewarding work, says Drake, a first-yeargraduate student. He is researching the Upper Cedar River Watershed. “I’ve enjoyed studying the impact water can have on people,” Drake says.

In the meantime, Weber and the rest of the team are holding regular meetings with constituents in the watersheds. It’s impossible to overestimate the impact of this human aspect, which Weber calls the “most important element.”

A 50-Year Vision

After 18 months of modeling and meetings, watershed representatives will choose a few very small areas of the watershed in which to build the improvements — with advice from the IFC researchers. The improvements could include farm ponds, wetlands, floodplain easements, and more. They will be kept small, so researchers can clearly assess and analyze their impact. But even areas that don’t directly benefit from the construction of an improvement will have an advantage moving forward, Weber says. They will be left with valuable documents and data developed through the hydrologic assessment, allowing them to better compete for funds in the future.

The payoff for researchers and Iowans will come at the end of the project when they can begin to understand what works best in each watershed, and which strategies can be scaled up for implementation throughout the state.

Weber hopes that the results of the Iowa Watersheds Project can help provide a long-term plan for improving the state’s flood resiliency. “I like to think about vision,” he explains. “In this case, a 50- year vision for watershed enhancement.”

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