DAVENPORT, Iowa — The Mississippi River city long pilloried for refusing to build a flood wall is finally getting one to safeguard its water supply, but delays mean the structure will not be in place for possible flooding this spring.
Davenport is partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build an $11.5 million wall to guard the water treatment plant that is the main source of water for area residents and businesses. But construction on the project authorized by Congress in 1970 won't begin until this summer, long after dangers from upriver snowmelts and spring storms have passed.
Threats to the 100,000-resident city eased somewhat Friday when the National Weather Service reported that cooler temperatures would slow northern snowmelts and delay flooding until at least next week. But the weather service still forecasts a 25 percent chance that Davenport will see flooding in coming weeks that will be worse than the previous record of 1993, when the river crested more than 7 feet above flood stage.
Already, some residents of the Garden Addition, a working-class neighborhood of modest homes on the city's west end, are flood-proofing their homes and making plans to evacuate should that be necessary. Workers are rushing to protect the city's signature minor league baseball stadium and other businesses.
No structure is more crucial to protect than the Iowa American Water treatment plant that sits on East River Drive. Alarmed by earlier forecasts, the company that is the sole source of water for more than 130,000 residents and businesses in Davenport, neighboring Bettendorf and nearby areas is hiring a contractor to build a 2,000-foot earthen levee around three sides of the plant.
"The community's water supply is at stake if we don't do what we need to do," said company spokeswoman Lisa Reisen, adding that a worst-case scenario would put flood water several feet above the plant's seawall. "We're going to take every precaution we can to protect the plant."
Reisen said a water plant had operated at the current site since 1873 and never been knocked out. Officials think it will survive this year but acknowledged they'd have to scramble if flooding inundated the plant.
"We would obviously have to make some sort of arrangements to get some water trucked in ... but we're really just not preparing for that because our primary goal is to make sure that doesn't happen," Reisen said.
For years, Davenport has been the last major metropolitan area along the upper Mississippi — between St. Louis and Minneapolis — without a flood protection system. While critics have blasted the city for being wall-free when it floods every few years, others praise Davenport for taking steps to limit flood damage while keeping its connection to the river that runs along downtown.
Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba acknowledged the city has flooded at least a dozen times since the mid-1960s, and the worst in 1993 ran up a $3 million bill for the city. But Gluba said most recent flooding affected a small percentage of residents because of how officials have redesigned the community to reduce property damage and embrace the river.
"We're Iowa's front porch," Gluba said. "Davenport has a beautiful riverfront."
Congress authorized the construction of a system of levees and floodwalls in 1970. But the city never followed through because of concerns about the cost of building a wall and the impact it would have on the view of the river downtown. A $13 million project was scrapped in 1984 because the city couldn't afford it.
City leaders have since purchased and bulldozed homes that were in the floodplain, elevated buildings and made sure new construction could avoid or withstand a flood. Most land bordering the river now is reserved for parks, bicycle paths and parking lots that can quickly bounce back from flooding.
The city's approach is smarter and more cost-effective than simply building a flood wall, which can be expensive and fail with devastating results, said Ron Fournier, a spokesman for the Rock Island District of the Corps. Many cities along the river use Davenport as an example as they try to reconnect with their riverfronts, he said.
"I live in Davenport and I love the fact that I can see the river every day," Fournier said. "Walling up every city can be done if you have the money and the resources but (Davenport's approach) is also a great way to do it."
Still, the issue boiled up during the flooding of 2001, when President George W. Bush's Federal Emergency Management director, Joe Allbaugh, questioned why federal taxpayers were paying to rebuild often-drenched cities like Davenport that don't have flood walls. Davenport's then-mayor angrily defended the city's approach.
In the wake of the dustup, the Corps determined in 2002 that the initial concept to protect most of the city's riverfront no longer made sense since it would cost $55 million and fewer properties in the floodplain meant far lower risk of damage. But it found justification for protecting the water treatment plant, partly because its temporary closure would shut down hundreds of businesses and force the National Guard to deliver emergency water supplies to residents, which happened during flooding in Des Moines in 1993.
Now, the project is finally moving forward. Congress has approved most of the federal money needed and the city finished buying key land in January. But rising costs for steel, fuel and concrete recently added $2 million to the cost.
Fournier said the Corps plans to sign a construction contract this spring and work should begin this summer and be finished as early as next year. The water company will pay 25 percent of the project's cost, Reisen said.
Meanwhile, the city's water supply will remain at risk during the coming weeks. Workers are expected to erect the levee around the building within days using an earthen clay material, plastic sheeting and tens of thousands of sandbags, Reisen said.
"They are talking about record-setting floods," Fournier said, "so we don't know what's going to happen."
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