Cedar Rapids’ Levee Protection System Battling Floods

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Despite the Cedar River's crest, that doesn't mean the levee protection system is in the clear.

More than 10 miles of HESCO barriers line the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids. The mesh and sand barriers serve as a temporary levee system and have held strong so far. But the Army Corps of Engineers says the levee is still at risk of breaching.

Despite their price tag, cities without a permanent flood protection plan use HESCO barriers because they are easier to use than sandbags and more reliable.

But experts say the most reliable levee is a permanent one, like a man-made berm.

“It’s just a dirt berm that`s been placed carefully to some highly engineered specifications,” said Jonathan Gano, Des Moines Public Works Director. “It’s not just dumped there. It has to be placed in layers, compacted and tested to make sure that it will withstand the pressure.”

That wasn't the case when the Birdland Levee breached during the floods of 1993, 2008 and 2010, flooding neighborhoods in portions of the north side of Des Moines.

The levee was eventually strengthened and re-tested by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2011.

“So that one`s big and new and will not fail,” said Gano.

The Birdland Levee is just one of the city's nearly two dozen levees.

Each of them with several pumping stations and flood gates to keep the city from going under water.

“When the river comes up, we get in there and crank the gate closed so the river water doesn`t flood right under the levee and into downtown,” said Gano.

The Court Avenue pumping station cost the city about $5 million, a price city leaders are willing to pay to keep the city dry.

“A well maintained permanent levee is a feature that will last for decades,” said Gano. “If it’s built right it can last a long, long time”

The city also has a massive stockpile of temporary levee barriers. It offered to give some of it to the city of Cedar Rapids but a town closer was able to provide them with the tools.