Iowa Watershed Approach

From 2011–13, Iowa suffered eight Presidential Disaster Declarations encompassing 73 counties and more than 70% of the state. Devastating as these events were, this period does not even represent Iowa’s worst flood years. Long-term data show that heavy precipitation and flood events are increasing in frequency across the Midwest, and Iowans need to be prepared for the economic, social, and environmental impacts of these changing trends.

Cedar River flooding in Cedar Rapids on June 13,2008. Photo taken by Linn County Emergency Management Association.

The Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA) program takes a holistic approach to address flooding at the watershed scale, recognizing that upstream and downstream communities need to voluntarily work together to increase community flood resilience.

The IWA will accomplish six specific goals:

The IWA brings Iowans together to address factors that contribute to floods. Nine distinct watersheds are involved in the project, including the Upper Iowa River, Upper Wapsipinicon River, Middle Cedar River, Clear Creek, English River, North Raccoon River, East Nishnabotna River, West Nishnabotna River, and Bee Branch Creek. In addition, urban projects in the cities of Dubuque, Coralville, and Storm Lake will focus on infrastructure improvements to mitigate flood risk.

Each watershed has formed a Watershed Management Authority (WMA) that brings local stakeholders together to prioritize their watershed improvement needs, share resources, and foster new partnerships and collaborations. IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering (IIHR) and the Iowa Flood Center (IFC) are developing a hydrologic assessment of each watershed that will provide WMAs, local leaders, landowners, and residents with an understanding of the hydrology – the movement of water – within their watershed. This assessment will deliver valuable information to stakeholders to help guide strategic decision-making to efficiently address flooding and water-quality concerns.

WMAs in each watershed have identified eligible sub-watersheds for practice implementation efforts. Through the IWA, volunteer landowners will be eligible to receive 75% cost-share assistance to implement best management practices (BMPs) such as ponds, wetlands, and water and sediment control basins (WASCOBS) to reduce the magnitude of downstream flooding and improve water quality during and after flood events. The implementation of BMPs is an essential step toward the long-term recovery to improve Iowa’s future flood resiliency.

Flood mitigation structure in the Soap Creek Watershed.

In January 2016, the state of Iowa received a $97 million award for the Iowa Watershed Approach. The grant was part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) National Disaster Resilience Competition, which funds cutting-edge projects to address unmet needs from past natural disasters and reduce Americans’ vulnerability to future disasters. The project will end in September 2021.

The success of the IWA depends on collaborative partnerships among many statewide organizations and local stakeholders who together will carry out the work necessary to achieve the goals of the IWA. The expertise and scientific and technological advances developed by IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering and the Iowa Flood Center served as a significant source of leverage that helped bring the IWA project to the state of Iowa.

The IWA is an expansion of the Iowa Watersheds Project (IWP), a similar effort in five Iowa watersheds (Upper Cedar River, Turkey River, Soap Creek, Middle Raccoon, and Chequest Creek). The IWP was funded through HUD in the aftermath of the devastating 2008 floods and was active from 2010–16. The success of the IWP served as a significant source of leverage for the state of Iowa to receive funding for the IWA, providing a framework to build upon that demonstrated Iowa’s leadership and commitment to working together and improving flood resiliency. For more information on the Iowa Watersheds Project, visit

Current IWA watersheds in blue and completed IWP watersheds in red.

For more information about the Iowa Watershed Approach, visit