HUD Promises Disaster Deterrent Dollars: $96.9 Million

HUD Promises Disaster Deterrent Dollars:  $96.9 Million

By Michael McAllister

Suppose you could improve something that would benefit not only you and your children and grandchildren but neighbors and friends and people you do not even know, not just now but well into the future.

And suppose someone was willing to pay 75% of the cost.

That opportunity, described in its simplest terms, awaits some Poweshiek County landowners as a result of a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant to Iowa.  The statewide grant, divided among the watersheds in Iowa, is $96.9 million.  Of that amount, $5.4 million comes to the English River Watershed (ERW), which begins in the southeast corner of Grinnell and runs through a good portion of Poweshiek County on its journey to the south and east.

Jody Bailey, English River Watershed Coordinator, outlined particulars of the program in the Caulkins Community Room at Grinnell’s Drake Community Library Tuesday evening, August 15.  Poweshiek CARES—Community Action to Restore Environmental Stewardship—arranged the presentation, and the president of the organization, Joyce Otto (on the left below), introduced Jody Bailey (right).

Iowa’s water and land resources are of special concern to Bailey.  She grew up, in her words, “right on the Cedar River,” as a “4-H kid” with horses and sheep on a farm; her mother practiced organic gardening and sold produce at a farmers market.

Bailey holds a Master’s Degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Iowa (2012).  She became involved with the English River Watershed in 2013 when she contracted as a consultant with the city of Kalona.  In addition to her position with the English River Watershed Management Authority (ERWMA), she is a soil commissioner of Johnson County.

“Everywhere you go, you are in a watershed,” Bailey stated, and a watershed is “literally a drainage basin.”  She compared watersheds to Russian nesting dolls in that one watershed sits within another that sits within another and so on.  Thus the English River Watershed hosts several subwatersheds and, in turn, rests within the Lower Iowa River Watershed.  In all, Iowa is home to nine watersheds that make up part of the Mississippi River System.  The ERW spans the lower right (the darkest) section of the map below.

The southeast corner of Grinnell sits at the northwest tip of the English River Watershed, which extends in a kind of banana shape southeast to drain into the Iowa River at Riverside near the Iowa-Illinois border.  The ERW encompasses parts of Poweshiek, Mahaska, Iowa, Keokuk, Johnson, and Washington counties.  At its widest point, the watershed stretches from Webster on the south to Lake Iowa, about six miles above Millersburg, on the north.  Approximately 1,447 miles of rivers and streams run through the 639 square miles that make up the watershed, and approximately 21,700 people call the watershed home.

Theoretically, a message in a bottle tossed into a ditch southeast of Grinnell could eventually be read by a fisher searching for shrimp in the waters just south of New Orleans.

The concept of watershed management grew in Iowa because of the floods of 2008, reports the English River Authority in an informational brochure.   The Authority emerged in 2013, according to its website, as a result of unusual flood activity in towns near the lower end of the watershed—Kalona, Wellman, and Riverside, for example.  In fact, three historical flooding events occurred in 2014 and 2015.  The agency’s purpose is to deal with issues that arise, and its method of attacking such issues is, broadly stated, to bring people together.

Once the agency was up and running, and once Bailey was on board, research was in order.  “We knew we had problems,” Bailey said, “but we didn’t have numbers.”  Through 2014 and 2015, with the help of the Department of Natural Resources, the Iowa Soybean Association, the Iowa Flood Center, and the Iowa Water Program, the agency conducted “a heck of a lot of research,” Bailey reported.  Livestock, land changes, and people were some of the broad subjects of investigation.

Some disturbing trends emerged, two of which were a general population loss existing within the watershed and upper-watershed communities contributing “significant amounts of runoff into the watershed,” as shown on the map below.  To some extent, this situation exists due to steeper and more frequent slopes in the upper portion of watershed.

ERWMA is a non-government, non-profit, grant-funded agency employing a coordinator and an assistant, populated by a representative from each of the participating entities, overseen by a board consisting of seven of the representatives.  The authority works with other agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service {NRCS) and partners with experts to assess vulnerabilities within the watershed, to bring stakeholders together, to advocate and promote successful land management practices, and to research funding opportunities.  The ERWMA has no jurisdictional authority; it cannot establish regulations, levy taxes, or revise zoning regulations, among other restrictions.

Activities of the ERWMA include monitoring surface water locations, analyzing runoff conditions, assessing storm water effects in urban communities, improving subwatershed performance, sharing implementation plans, and facilitating funding applications.

The organization is part of the Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA), which lists six goals:

  • Reduce flood risk
  • Improve water quality
  • Increase resilience
  • Engage stakeholders
  • Improve quality of life and health
  • Develop a scalable program

Membership in the ERWMA is voluntary.  Poweshiek county, for example, joined the agency only recently.  The county became part of fifteen other organizations such as soil and water conservation districts, counties, and towns that make up the management authority.  Bailey stated that she was extremely pleased to welcome Poweshiek County to the group.

While the major goal of the HUD grant focuses on reducing flood risk, water quality management is also part of the program.  Within the ERW, for instance, research has shown that phosphorus is a greater problem than nitrates, that chlorine levels within the watershed have declined, and that E coli levels “have exceeded benchmark values over 50% of the time since 1999,” the ERWMA executive summary reports.

Appreciation of the issues with which water authorities deal requires macro as opposed to micro thinking.  “It’s hard to visualize how my lawn and your lawn [are] contributing to flooding downstream, but we have to think about it in a cumulative effect; across 600 square miles, it really adds up,” Bailey asserted.

What can a landowner do?  The Iowa Watershed Approach prioritizes specific practices.  Some are deemed more valuable than others.  Jody Bailey listed the following improvements.  “Flood-first practices”—those that have the greatest potential to reduce flooding and flooding damage—will receive top priority.

The application process is not complicated—one or two pages.  The next steps involve a site visit, an evaluation, and a collaboration about methods that the landowner might employ to improve flood resilience and reduce water quality vulnerabilities.  The grant allows for payment of 75% of all project costs—engineer fees, construction design, legal fees, and labor, Bailey stated.

What can a non-landowner do?

  • Get involved
  • Volunteer
  • Attend board meetings
  • Donate—not just money but food for events
  • Speak out and spread the word
  • Monitor the watershed website for meeting and general information
  • Join the watershed mailing list at the website: http://www.englishriverwma.org

Early in her presentation, Jody Bailey stated that she did not have easy answers.  No, the answers to issues such as flood prevention and water quality are not simple.  Yet discovering them is imperative.

Agencies such as the English River Watershed Management Authority deserve everyone’s support since everyone, one way or another, is a stakeholder.  More information is available at the above website link, by emailing Jody Bailey at jbailey@englishriverwma.org, or by calling 319.656.2310.

The Iowa Watershed Approach concludes, “This program is not only about Iowans helping Iowans, but also about demonstrating Iowans’ commitment to agricultural stewardship, to the environment, to their neighbors, and to the future.”

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