States, localities are slow to repair poorly maintained levees

Published 22 December 2008

Two years ago the U.S. government identified 122 levees as too poorly maintained to be reliable in major floods; only forty-five of them had necessary repairs; people living behind the unrepaired levees should be concerned

You would think that the lesson of Katrina would have sunk in. Think again. Communities around the United States have repaired fewer than half of the 122 levees identified by the government almost two years ago as too poorly maintained to be reliable in major floods, according to Army Corps of Engineers data. USA Today’s Peter Eisler reports that state and local governments were given a year to fix levees cited by the corps for “unacceptable” maintenance deficiencies in a February 2007 review that was part of a post-Hurricane Katrina crackdown. Only forty-five have had necessary repairs, according to data provided in response to a USA TODAY request. The remaining unrepaired levees are spread across eighteen states and Puerto Rico — most in California and Washington. People living behind the unrepaired levees “have every right to be concerned,” said Tammy Conforti, head of the corps’ levee safety program. “If (people) depend on that for flood risk reduction,” she said of each unrepaired levee, “… those deficiencies need to be corrected.”

In an effort to put pressure on state and local governments, the Army Corps has removed many of the unacceptable levees from the corps’ inspection program, making them ineligible for federal rehabilitation funding if they are damaged by floodwaters. Property owners behind those levees also could be required to buy flood insurance if the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) finds that the maintenance problems leave them unprotected against a 100-year flood — an event that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year.

It is possible that some communities with unrepaired levees may be in the process of fixing them, and they can apply for readmission to the corps’ inspection program once the work is done. Some levees on the list protect densely populated areas, such as the Seattle and Sacramento metro areas, others guard rural, agricultural land.

Only a fraction of the U.S. levees are inspected by the corps. Levees in the inspection program typically were built by the corps and turned over to local governments for maintenance. “It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of these levees have not been fixed,” said Larry Larson of the national Association of State Floodplain Managers. Some lack money for repairs, Larson said. Others “see this as a federal problem. … They’re saying, ‘Well, what’s going to happen if we don’t fix them?’ The levee fails and the federal taxpayer will pay for the damages” through relief programs.

A few states have launched major initiatives to address inadequate levees. California set aside $5 billion for levee repairs. Connecticut has provided $5 million for levee improvement in Hartford. “It’s taken time to identify the repair needs fully and develop plans to address them,” said Dennis Schain, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.