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Many levees rarely inspected
User ID: 456814
06/23/2008 11:21 AM
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[link to www.desmoinesregister.com]
Many Iowa levees are makeshift creations not built to federal specifications and are rarely inspected, state and federal officials acknowledged last week.
In fact, the state has no comprehensive levee-inspection program for an unknown number of levees — possibly hundreds — that haven't been certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Richard Leopold, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
Instead, a single state staffer responds to complaints about levees overseen by 140 local agencies — but doesn't check them.
The safety of levees was front and center as national coverage of record flooding in Iowa unfolded the past couple of weeks. In some cases — including in the Birdland Park area of Des Moines — levees broke. That levee was known to be weak, didn't meet Corps standards, and sat 15 years after record flooding in 1993 without needed improvements.
In other instances, people in Mason City, Corning, Cedar Rapids, Keokuk and elsewhere nervously watched levees as waters rose. Some of the structures were topped, especially along the Mississippi River in southeastern Iowa.
Leopold and his department this year asked the Legislature for a $300,000 appropriation for dam and levee inspections, and other flood plain work. They got nothing.
"We don't do a lot of proactive work on these things," Leopold said. "We mostly respond to complaints, like when property owners are disputing the location of a new levee."
Now, with Iowa awash in flood damage, Leopold plans to ask for more than $300,000 next session. He's not sure he'll get it.
"I'm going to be much more aggressive about this," Leopold said. "We should be out there and have a plan for when these go down."
The state also needs to develop a plan for flood plain management that might focus in part on moving structures out of flood plains, rather than simply on raising levees, Leopold added. One painful lesson learned by Iowans this month is that 100-year floods or 500-year floods can come along at any time.
"This will happen again, in a year, or 10 years, or 30 years," Leopold said. "Putting all our money into levees — is it high enough? — it's just a guessing game. When this is over, and the danger is past, we need to take a deep breath and look at the whole situation."
Corps, local authorities conduct inspections
Officials in Minnesota and Missouri said their resources departments don't inspect levees, either, leaving that work to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local levee districts, as Iowa does.
Suzanne Jiwani of Minnesota's flood plain office said that if a levee isn't good enough to qualify for Army Corps inspections, it isn't worth much.
"If it's not in the Corps program, we don't want to be giving people the idea it's safe," she said.
Kerry Cordray of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources said that state also leaves levee inspections to the Corps.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspects only levees that it designed and built, or that it has certified as meeting standards.
Corps spokesman Ron Fournier said many Iowa levees, typically built by farmers or local agencies after flooding in the 1960s, are rows of sandbags covered with dirt. Because they don't meet Corps standards, they aren't inspected regularly and don't qualify for federal repair or replacement projects.
Four levees in Iowa were built in the 1890s. Nineteen others were built between 1900 and 1940. Eighteen date to the 1950s. Some of those were built by the Corps but are maintained by local agencies. Some were built by local agencies but have been certified by the Corps as meeting federal requirements for Corps inspections and repair work. Some were built locally and don't meet Corps standards.
Only two listed in Corps records for the Rock Island District, which includes Iowa, were built in the 1990s or later.
The Rock Island District of the Corps inspects 106 levee systems covering 774 miles in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri.
Of those, 97 were inspected in 2007, and the remainder are Corps-built levees that are inspected continuously. The 106 levees qualify for federal project money.
The remaining 130 levees totaling 248 miles were constructed by a mishmash of local agencies, businesses and residents. They don't meet specifications, are rarely inspected and don't qualify for federal assistance. The makeshift levees are prone to damage from trees and rodents.
"They are all over the place," Fournier said.
Local agencies check some levies; others aren't monitored at all.
Although the Corps provided The Des Moines Register with a list of 236 levees, it would not identify exact levee locations or detail which levees have problems because of security concerns, Fournier said.
"Some have problems, and some don't," he said. "Their owners know if they are damaged, and that's enough."
Fournier said federal officials fear an incident similar to 1993, when levee protection was compromised by James Scott, an Illinois man sentenced to life in prison for removing sandbags from a levee. He is blamed for the flooding of 14,000 acres and the closing of a Mississippi River bridge.
Poor levees can be difficult to identify
But the floods of 2008 showed that the public isn't always aware of which levees need improvement.
At least 19 levees in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri have failed this year.
Kevin Bauer, owner of Glass Professionals Inc. in Des Moines, fought back the Birdland Park area flood with two pumps June 14 before police told him to leave. Frustrated that the levee broke and that police were harassing him, he refused to leave and ended up in a squad car for a while.
"We could have stayed on top of it," Bauer said at the time.
Bill Cappuccio, a veteran flood plain worker at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said no one knows exactly how many smaller levees dot Iowa. Many were installed by local drainage districts that aren't actively managed anymore, he said.
The integrity of those levees is questionable, Cappuccio said: "Does anyone inspect them? I don't know. I've seen farmers who monitor levees perfectly, and some who don't."
Fournier said a large study of the Upper Mississippi River flood-control system, still under way, left the Corps with this initial view: In many cases, it isn't worth the money to raise Mississippi River levees. In other locations, particularly in heavily developed areas, it may be worth the spending.
The widespread floods this year may mean another full-fledged analysis of flood protection across the Upper Midwest, he said.
Fournier said most of the federally certified levees are in good enough condition to hold back water, or they wouldn't have been accepted into the Corps program and made eligible for federal improvements. However, some need trees removed, or relatively minor repairs, to ensure they are strong in the long term.
Fournier said the Corps will check any levee that protects a public area if a public official or agency requests the inspection. It does not check levees that protect only private property, such as a manufacturing plant.
If an improvement is proposed, the Corps requires the public will get at least $1 of protection benefit for every $1 the federal government spends on flood controls. Many projects don't clear that bar. The Corps will consider improvements even if only cornfields are protected.
Jack Riessen, a longtime DNR flood plain and water-quality worker, said state law gives the DNR the authority to approve levee projects and implies that the department should be checking the structures. The agency doesn't, and apparently never has, he said.
"There should be an active levee protection program," Riessen said. "It's something that doesn't get done. We don't have an active levee inspection program."
The risk far outweighs any benefit as the risk will vary from child to child.
User ID: 455739
06/23/2008 11:26 AM
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