Flood Control vs. the Sequester in Iowa

The first-in-the-nation caucus state could see a halt in critical infrastructure work, thanks to mandatory federal budget cuts.

An aerial view of flooded downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, June 14, 2008 (Ron Mayland/Reuters)

Here's a big one to add to the catalog of potential sequestration casualties: long-term flood control efforts in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

It may only be 2013, but Iowa is already drawing 2016 presidential hopefuls; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul will headline the Lincoln Day Dinner sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party in Cedar Rapids on May 10. But the impact of the sequester on that Eastern Iowan city could eventually give new meaning to the cliche of testing the Iowa waters.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette reports this morning that city flood-protection plans are at risk, thanks to sequestration.

Five years after record floods devastated Cedar Rapids, funding for flood-prevention plans on the east side of the Cedar River are facing a cloudy future as a result of congressional cuts to the federal budget.

Congressman Bruce Braley does not have to look far in his new district office in downtown Cedar Rapids to be reminded of the damage the 2008 flood brought to the city -- a large, "vivid" photograph of the flooding hangs just inside the front door.

"It was epic," said Braley, who lives upriver in Waterloo but whose redrawn district now includes Cedar Rapids. "I have very vivid memories of getting on a helicopter and flying over the river corridor and just being shocked at the widespread devastation.

"People need to understand that the fund these projects are paid through was cut by 11 percent from the 2012 level. That's a dramatic reduction, so going forward and trying to get support for this project will be tougher because there are now fewer resources for these projects around the country."

Based on Gazette interviews with Cedar Rapids city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers and all four members of Eastern Iowa's congressional delegation -- Reps. Braley and Dave Loebsack, and Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin -- the various projects fall into two categories: The Army Corps project for the river, which faces immediate peril, and a long list of 350 flood-recovery projects pending before the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which are protected for now....

The most threatened project is perhaps the most important -- protecting the Cedar River from another flood of similar size ....

Ron Fournier, corporate communications chief for the Army Corps' Rock Island District, which has jurisdiction over Cedar Rapids, said the project's future will be clarified once Army Corps officials know for sure how much their budget is being cut.

"Any single project that we work on right now can be affected, depending on how much they cut," Fournier said. "But if we don't get any money for ongoing engineering and design work, there won't be any work. Right now, there's no funding."

We often forget how much domestic work the U.S. Army does, whether through the Corps of Engineers or National Guard, and the blunt instrument of the sequester is going to be impacting the readiness of the Iowa National Guard -- you know, the people who mobilize during times of natural disaster -- as well. Reported the Gazette in late March:

The federal budget sequester will impair the readiness of the Iowa National Guard, as well as the personal finances of at least 1,100 of its members, officials say.

"Our main concern is readiness. That is everything to our operation," said Guard spokesman Col. Greg Hapgood, one of about 1,100 "federal technicians" facing mandatory furloughs this summer....

Squeezing most of the cuts into a five-month period -- May through September -- makes them harder to implement, said Hapgood, who along with other federal technicians will be taking one unpaid day per week, in effect a 20 percent pay and benefits cut during that period.

The furloughs affect only personnel classified as "federal technicians" - full-time, uniform-wearing Guard members who are basically indistinguishable from the majority of the Guard's personnel, classified as Active Guard and Reserve.

CWO3 Kevin Unkel, maintenance chief at the Iowa National Guard Armory in Cedar Rapids and one of 20 federal technicians working in the shop, said vehicle readiness will suffer during the furloughs....

Both Schwendinger and Andersen said the reduced vehicle maintenance will hurt the readiness of Guard units during their upcoming 15-day annual training exercises.

"We will see a reduction in the operational readiness of our equipment, as well as reduced ammunition availability," said Maj. Rob Cain, commander of the Guard's 650-member 234th Special Troops Battalion in Cedar Rapids.

Overall, the sequester is expected to "trim $46.5 million in federal funds out of Iowa's annual budget of about $12 billion," according to the Iowa Republican, for a 0.4 percent reduction in the state budget.