Globe Gazette: Stream Monitoring System Could Protect Iowans

By James Q. Lynch
Des Moines Bureau

DES MOINES — Witold Krajewski has a vision for a low-cost, real-time early warning system to improve Iowa’s ability to make emergency management decisions protect Iowans from flooding.

Krajewski, director of the University of Iowa Flood Center, told lawmakers Wednesday that Iowa’s 25,000 bridges could become part of a stream-level monitoring system that, when the center’s work is completed, would give Iowa communities more time and information on which to base decisions about flood preparation and evacuation.

Currently, there are 156 United States Geological Survey monitoring stations in Iowa. Each comes at a cost of about $20,000, he told the House Rebuild Iowa Committee.

However, UI electrical engineering students have developed a $3,000 stream-level sensor that could be attached to the underside of each of the 25,000 bridges in Iowa. The units would be connected by cell phone to a central database to allow for monitoring of streams and rivers of all sizes. Krajewski thinks communities would be willing to pay for those units and the monthly cell phone bill for a connection to a central database that could be accessed by Iowans.

In other action Wednesday, the Senate Rebuild Iowa Committee approved Senate Study Bill 3077 to double fines for certain property crimes in disaster when there is knowledge that the property has been disaster affected. The deterrent would remain in effect for three years after a disaster. A similar bill is moving through the House.

Meanwhile, a House subcommittee took no action on Senate File 367 that would have required storm water management standards. Subcommittee members cited a variety of other bills addressing the same subject.

And a Senate subcommittee on Senate File 3089 heard comments on a proposal to require insurance companies to inform property owners of the need and availability of flood and sewer back-up insurance. The bill also calls for disclosure of previous flooding or sewer back-ups when property is transferred. Senators indicated they would continue to work on the proposal.

The stream-level sensors are an example of the role the Flood Center can play in improving flood monitoring and prediction capabilities, Krajewski said. A prototype has been in use since fall and the Flood Center has shared the technology with the departments of Natural Resources and Transportation, which have agreed to develop pilot projects. A preliminary network could be operational in six to 12 months and a statewide network of several hundred sensors could be in place in one to two years.

Krajewski is proud of the work the center has done in the past year and said it’s indicative of what it can accomplish as even more data is gathered. It’s developing flood inundation models in six locations: on the Iowa River in Iowa City and rural Johnson County; on the Cedar River in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, another in Charles City; on the Turkey River at Elkader; and on the Des Moines River in Des Moines.

It’s in discussion with the Army Corps of Engineers to get its data for the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids.

In the next two to five years, flood inundation maps could be completed for all Iowa communities at risk of severe flooding,” Krajewski said.

The maps will exceed FEMA requirements. They will be accessible to the public and interactive, so emergency management agencies can plug in variables — rainfall, inundation, and water velocity, for example.

“We’re talking about doing something the U.S. government has not done,” he said. “We’re talking about moving to another level, beyond the capabilities of the National Weather Service.”

Progress will depend, in part, on funding, Krajewski said. The center asked for $2.3 million last year and received $1.3 million. It is again asking for $2.3 million, but Gov. Chet Culver put $1.3 million in his budget released Wednesday.

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