Committee to urge levee inventory, standards

Thursday, December 11, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- The United States needs a complete inventory of all levees and a national safety standard for the last line of defense against floods, members of the National Committee on Levee Safety said Wednesday.

The committee, formed as the result of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007, will make recommendations to Congress in January. The 16-member committee is chaired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is made up of representatives with expertise in levees from federal, state and local governments, American Indian tribes and the private sector.

In May, The Associated Press reported that while the corps completed an inventory of levees it maintains or helps fund, there is no inventory of the thousands of private levees. Officials don't know how many there are or what shape they are in.

This summer, heavy rains led to record flooding in parts of Iowa and floods in Missouri and Illinois that approached record levels of 1993. Hundreds of private levees were breached or overtopped.

"The flooding this year in the Midwest provided a good reminder to committee members of the importance of the task before us and the importance of getting a handle on our levee system," committee member Les Harder said during a teleconference with the media.

Another member, Mike Stankiewicz, who is chief of flood control projects for the New York Department of Environment Conservation, said the task of inventorying every levee is daunting. For example, he said California alone has 14,000 miles of levees, and 80 percent of them are privately owned.

The committee wants levees placed into one of three risk categories -- high, significant or low -- depending upon factors such as how many people could be flooded if the levee failed or was overtopped, the critical structures behind the levee and the depth of the potential flooding.

The committee also sees a need for improvement in the way risk is defined. For example, a levee offering "100-year" protection simply means there's a 1 percent chance each year that floodwaters could exceed the levee's height. But some so-called "100-year" levees have been threatened or overtopped three times since 1993 in Missouri alone.

"There is significant risk of flooding even at 100-year levels," Harder said. "We want to communicate all of the risks. We want to get away from the perception that some people have that if you have 100-year protection, you're not in a flood plain."

How quickly the levee inventory happens depends on how much money Congress approves and how fast it does it, said Eric Halpin, the corps' special assistant for dam and levee safety and vice chairman of the committee.

He noted that levees have been around for more than a century.

"It took us 100 years to get here," Halpin said. "Getting the inventory right, even if we go at the speed of light, is going to take some time."

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