Elkader, Iowa

Flood mitigation investment delivers huge return on investment for small town

Sitting on the banks of the Turkey River, Elkader, Iowa faced record floods in 1999—which damaged lagoons, the sewage treatment plant, and the main sanitary lift station, causing untreated sewage to flow into the river. The city used a FEMA grant and local funds totaling $135,000 to raise the berm around the plant, build aeration lagoons and construct a floodwall to reduce flood risks for the lift station. During subsequent flooding, the new infrastructure prevented further damage and kept water systems running throughout the storms.

Photo by Josh Funk Photography

Community facts

Median household income
Source: US Census Bureau.

Mitigation actions

Elkader has since experienced four major flooding events, including record floods in June 2008 and smaller, more recent events in August and September 2016. In 2008, many businesses and homes were damaged, but the sewage treatment plant, pumping station and lagoons were not impacted, and sewage services never went down. Floodwaters came within 2 ft of overtopping the new berm during the 2008 floods. “Without the berm, it would have flooded the area for sure,” says Elkader's city clerk, Jennifer Cowsert.

In 2010, the city built a new $3.2 million wastewater treatment facility. The berm, which cost the city less than $70,000 with FEMA’s matched funding, now reduces the flood risks to the multi-million-dollar investment. Cowsert called the decision to support the relatively low-cost project with FEMA's financial contribution “a no-brainer.”

The mitigation investments were tested again in August and September 2016 when the Turkey River flooded. During these flood events, the berm and the floodwall prevented flooding to the city’s sewage treatment plant and main sanitary lift station.

Benefits of mitigation

Economic benefits
Total monetized benefits
Return on investment
Estimated return on investment
Benefit-cost ratio
Benefit-cost ratio of the Elkader projects
Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency (2010). Loss Avoidance Study, Iowa, Flood Reduction Projects.

Project challenges

Finding matching funds was difficult for the small town

The city had to come up with roughly $70,000 to meet the 50% match for the $135,000 project. It was a significant investment, but well worth it, says Cowsert.

"The wastewater treatment plant survived both of the 2016 floods. The berm held and the water did not overtop it, so it still proved to be a good investment."
Jennifer Cowsert, Elkader city clerk

Future considerations

Floodplains and reclaimed land double as a playfield for local residents.
Photo by City of Elkader
City leaders are seeking new funding sources to provide flood hazard reduction to vulnerable businesses along the river.

Following the 2008 floods, 32 damaged homes were acquired and removed by the city using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) disaster relief funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But Elkader still faces flooding risks, especially in parts of the downtown district where businesses back onto the river.

City leaders would like to secure grants to build another floodwall to provide flood hazard reduction to the downtown area, but most funding programs focus on critical facilities, such as wastewater infrastructure. “In our eyes, as a small town, we think of those businesses as critical facilities, and we want them to stay,” says Cowsert, but so far, the city has not found funding to support the project.

The 2016 floods eroded parts of the bank across both sides of the river, so there is discussion among city officials, FEMA, and the US Army Corps of Engineers about stabilizing and removing potential debris from the riverbanks to prevent erosion in future flood events.

Flood mitigation resources

Below is a non-exhaustive list of other flood mitigation information resources.