Ames Tribune: After the flood: A tale of two cities

Earth Watch: After the flood: A tale of two cities

By Dennis Keeney
Special to The Tribune

“If this happens again [Iowa] will go broke. There’s no way that the state can absorb another event of this magnitude,” said Witold Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center.

In the aftermath of yet another flood season, with its misery, expense and finger pointing, the question can be asked: “What can Ames do?” I thought it was instructive to see what happened to Iowa City and the University of Iowa in 2008 and how they are reacting. Oh, I know they are cross-state rivals, but not when it comes to Iowa and its future.

According to a recent news story “Rising Above the Flood” by Iza Wojciechowska, which appeared in the July 21 edition of Inside Higher Ed, many challenges remain at Iowa City and U of I to deal with the 2008 flood. Building damage and destruction was estimated at $743 million. While much of this is covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state has a considerable bill.

But all is not lost. U of I was able to take advantage of many of the challenges by reorienting programs, redesigning and changing priorities of buildings, and becoming more connected to the community. An exciting new initiative is the Iowa Flood Center, founded in the spring of 2009. It is the first national center devoted to the study and research of floods, and under Krajewski promises to create an important place for scientists to work and to gain new insights into flood issues.

However, full recovery will take another five to 10 years. Hancher must be built on a new site, and decisions must be made on how to relocate the art and art history programs that are now in a vacant Menards store. The first floor of the Iowa Student Union remains closed. The Optical Science and Technology Center received major damage with loss of equipment, original data and research. In another blow, the art museum recently was denied funding to rebuild by FEMA. That decision is under appeal.

Are big flood control dams the answer? They often do smooth out the flow of flood waters, lowering peak flows, but at the same time they lengthen the amount of time agricultural land is flooded. As Robert Sayre points out in chapter 11 of “A Watershed Year, Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008,” U of I Press, 2010, the Coralville Dam probably actually made things worse. Coralville Dam gave a false sense of security to Iowa City and U of I, allowing developers to push for housing and business building on the flood plain. And the university greatly expanded its arts campus on the shores of the river. It is a beautiful venue, and no one could blame them since everyone was assured no floods would occur with Coralville. Then came 1993 followed by 2008.

While the full cost of the 2010 flood in Ames and on campus is not yet available, it would appear ISU suffered less damage than U of I did in 2008, partly because ISU had fewer buildings in harm’s way. And ISU had far less damage to critical academic programs. Still, like the art and music programs and Hancher at U of I, ISU has to decide how to defend Scheman, Lied Recreation Athletic Center and Hilton Coliseum in the future.

Ames is on the upper reaches of the South Skunk River Basin, and the drainage area is relatively small, (329 square miles for the Skunk and 227 square miles for the Squaw.) In contrast, the drainage area for the Iowa River at Iowa City is 3,271 square miles. The floodplain of the Squaw is narrow, and offers little water storage capacity. Thus it is susceptible to flash flooding. The Squaw flows into Ames from the northwest, and winds through the ISU campus before joining the Skunk north of South 16th Street. The Skunk comes in from the north and flows along the east side of Ames. It has a broader flood plain. The small drainage area above Ames offers little opportunity to slow down and store water, especially for the Squaw. Thus it is especially destructive. Likewise, the South Skunk offers little upstream opportunity for flood control. The river right of way has an established riparian zone with greenways. In truth, Ames was established in exactly the wrong place. So was Iowa City.

Floods are not new here. A report in 2000 (I have this available in electronic format) identified the “most severe floods of record” as those in 1918, 1944, 1947, 1954, 1958, 1960, 1965, 1975, 1984 and 1993. We can add 1996, 2008 and 2010. That’s 13 severe floods in 92 years. After 1993, possibly the worst flood on record, many buildings in the flood plain were demolished. An early warning system was established and more homes were bought out after the 1996 flood.

In 1993, ISU established a “Flood Review Task Force” to identify ways to diminish flooding and reduce flood impacts in the Ames area. What has been done since then? The city established a 100-year flood plain (1 percent chance of flooding each year) and allowed building on the flood plain with an extra 1 foot of fill. As a result, the South Duff corridor is filling in with box stores, some of which flooded in 2010. We were close to a water main break in 1993 and had several in 2010. It seems that issue needs a careful look. Few if any additional businesses or affected apartment buildings were removed, though this flood might have taken care of some. The bus barn was greatly expanded and was badly damaged this year.

ISU did little that I can identify aside from adding a flood barrier to Hilton (which failed because they did not consider other points of entry for water.) They built a pre-kindergarten center in the flood plain that was badly damaged this year.

Ames and ISU must take action. Zoning laws need to be revisited, and perhaps Hilton and Scheman will need to be moved to higher ground. Most of us know little about the issues, including the Squaw and Skunk watersheds. An information video available to all residents covering the upper reaches of the watershed and outlining the flood mitigation options available would seem to be a better way to spend resources than bringing in yet another panel of “experts.” It is time to let the public in on the future of Ames before “we go broke.”

Dennis Keeney was the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and is an emeritus professor at Iowa State University. He resides in Ames and can be reached at


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*This article was used with permission by the Ames Tribune and Dennis Keeney.