Managing the Iowa River
The bad news for Iowa County residents in June 2008 was that the Iowa River at Marengo reached its highest point in recorded history, cresting at 21.38 feet, higher than the 1993 record of 20.27 feet.
The good news was that, with the help of volunteer labor, the levee along Bear Creek and the Iowa River together with a pond and a pump largely protected northern Iowa County from the sort of destruction experienced in cities like Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Waterloo that late spring. Yes, for sure, roads and bridges had taken a hit to the tune of some $1 million. But to a large extent the city of Marengo and the rest of northern Iowa County were spared.
The flood management system in place was one initiated and built in the 1970s. When the older Bear Creek levee already needed some $100,000 in repairs and permission was needed from the Iowa Natural Resources Council because the work was in a flood plain, the attorney for the drainage district, Lou McMeen, learned that the Army Corps of Engineers could provide funding for a much more extensive rebuilding of the Bear Creek and Iowa River levees with additional features to manage floods. The feasibility study showed that the county could either move Marengo south of Highway 6 to protect it from a so-called 500-year flood or rebuild the levee.
The plan that the Corps’s project engineer Richard Watson presented to the Iowa County Board of Supervisors called for a levee that would begin on the west at Bear Creek and the Rock Island railroad tracks and follow the existing levee, improving it to the Iowa River and east to former Highway 411. The levee, on the east side of Highway 411, would continue south where it would join the existing levee. The plan also included a 20-acre pond that would function as a pooling area in the hills south of US Highway 6 extending north to the river. A pumping station would be built at the pooling pond.
Congress released the funding for the project in 1978 and work began. After two years the project that cost $1.5 million in federal funds ($7.24 million in 2018 dollars) and $116,000 of local funds ($560,000 in 2018) was completed. As Iowa County editor Nick Narigon wrote in 2008, “Watson designed the levee for a 500-year flood. Thank God he did because we just happened to have a 500-year flood last week.”
Despite this good news, Iowa County Emergency Coordinator Alan Husband still said of the 2008 flood that it affected more people in the county than any other flood. 25-30 homes along the river between Marengo and Koszta had to be evacuated. A flash flood on Bear Creek at the peak of the high water reached the south edge of the town of Ladora. Volunteers sandbagged the Ladora sewage treatment plant on the southeast side of town until well after dark. The village of Amana, threatened by the Amana millrace and Price Creek, saw four homes flooded and the town airport as well as the parking lot surrounding the Whirlpool plant. All roads crossing the Iowa River were closed from between two days and two weeks. The English River in the southern part of the county also flooded but with less destructive effects.
Since 2008 the Iowa River and its tributaries have flooded again. In 2013, for example, floods in May and June brought the crest on the Iowa at Marengo to 20.36 feet. Volunteers again came out to help the levee, the pond, and the pump contain the damage in northern Iowa County.
Source: on-line: “2008 flood impact on Iowa County was small,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 16, 2018.