Levees facing scrutiny as part of tougher inspection program

Posted: Feb. 9, 2013 8:56 pm Updated: Mar. 3, 2013 1:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

One levee in Brown County, Ill., and two in Southeast Iowa were the only local levees listed as "unacceptable" in recent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspections.

Several area levees lining the Mississippi or Illinois rivers were listed as "minimally acceptable," while many others had no inspection results listed.

All of the local levees were included in a national database of 2,487 structures being scrutinized by the Corps of Engineers as part of the first-ever inventory of flood control systems overseen by the federal government.

A review of the national database by the Associated Press found that levees deemed "unacceptable" span the breadth of America. Many of those levees are "at risk of failing and endangering people and property in 37 states," the AP said in a story appearing in newspapers across the country.

Locally, no area levees pose a significant danger to people, even though many have failed during massive flood events -- particularly in 1993.

"For the most part, I'm not aware of any type of situation" in which a local levee is posing any danger to the public, said Mike Klingner, president of Klingner & Associates of Quincy, an engineering and architectural firm that does work for numerous levee and drainage districts.

Klingner also is vice chairman of the Upper Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri Rivers Association, which represents the interests of many levee and drainage districts in this region.

Klingner said the inspections being undertaken by the Corps of Engineers are required under the National Levee Safety Act, which was adopted by Congress in the wake of the 2007 Hurricane Katrina disaster that hammered New Orleans and many other communities in Southern states.

After numerous structural problems were found with levees in the New Orleans area, federal officials decided to check other levees across the country. So the inspections mandated by the safety act got under way.

"We've had quite a few of these more-intense inspections in our area," Klingner said. He said most area levees have been rated at least "minimally acceptable."

"I'm not aware of any (structural problems with levees) here that we feel are like they had in New Orleans, which were extremely poorly maintained in places," Klingner said.

"Basically with all of the levees in our area, the problem we have seen is that the levees are not built high enough to handle some of these major flood events, and we have what's called an ‘overtopping failure,' where the water actually goes over the top of the structure. The levees meet design requirements, and the only types of failures that we've had in my 30 years of experience in our area is the overtopping. Fortunately, our drainage district commissioners have done a good job of making sure people are out of the way" when an overtopping occurs, he said.

Klingner said the new inspections involve "really strict reviews" that point out even the smallest infractions.

"A lot of times, you'll get a write-up and it's a pretty minor item," Klingner said.

For example, he said one of the biggest inspection headaches for districts involves testing of pressure relief wells -- a relatively recent requirement.

"You have to document that you're testing those, and a lot of districts had not been testing them," Klingner said. "Of course, it wasn't a requirement in the past."

He said an inspector might remain in a district for just a few days and may not be able to gather all the documentation now required.

"So they just put down a ‘U' for unacceptable when the documentation is really there and they just didn't find it. So then the district has so many days to respond," he said.

He also said "a lot of the ‘minimally acceptable' (ratings) are for very minor items."

Klingner said the inspection process is irksome for many drainage districts because some of the improvements recommended by inspectors can be costly, and there is little or no money available to make the improvements.

Klingner said the national committee that encouraged the tougher levee inspections "also recommended that there be a grant process of at least $1 billion a year to help fund and implement these levee-safety improvements." However, Congress didn't authorize any money.

"That's the rub, because the Corps of Engineers is instituting these requirements, but it's basically an unfunded mandate," Klingner said. "There's no money to make these improvements. So a lot of districts are really struggling" to meet the guidelines.

One area levee rated "unacceptable" by the Corps of Engineers is maintained by the Little Creek Drainage District in eastern Brown County. This levee lines the western bank of the Illinois River and protects 1,646 acres of restored wetlands in the Spunky Bottoms Preserve, comprised of 1,197 acres owned by the Nature Conservancy and nearly 500 acres owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The IDNR also owns some adjoining acreage outside the levee district.

The preserve is used for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and as a rest stop for migrating birds, and the levee system helps control water levels within the wetlands.

The Corps downgraded the district's levee because "there were numerous things that weren't up to their specifications," explained Doug Blodgett, one of three commissioners overseeing the district.

For example, the Corps said one non-compliance issue involves several homes built many years ago on privately owned land atop portions of the levee. "There's not a lot we can do about that," Blodgett said.

He said the Corps also downgraded the district because its pumping system is inefficient, and there are trees growing too close to the base of the levee -- something the Corps considers a potential safety issue.

Tharran Hobson, a former district commissioner who works in Spunky Bottoms as the Illinois River program restoration manager for the Nature Conservancy, said district officials are reluctant to remove certain trees because they help prevent a nearby creek from eroding the levee.

"If those trees weren't there, that creek would eat into the side of our levee," Hobson said.

Klingner said the Corps' requirement that no trees be allowed within 15 feet of the toe of any levee is opposed by many levee and drainage districts.

"A lot of districts want to keep those trees," he said. "If you remove those trees, you really can increase the erosion against the toe. The trees are helping to keep the erosion away from the levee. So some are just saying, ‘We aren't going to remove them.'?"

Klingner said he spoke recently with a drainage district official in the Kansas City area who got in trouble because he cut down some trees at the Corps' request only to get reprimanded by the Department of Natural Resources for removing a tree in an area used for eagle nesting.

"You have conflicting regulations," Klingner said. "One agency is saying you can't cut them down, and the other one is saying it's an unacceptable condition."

The risk in getting an "unacceptable" rating on an inspection is that a district may not qualify to receive cost-share compensation from the federal government for any levee repairs that might occur in a catastrophic flood event.

That's the situation facing the Little Creek Drainage District. However, Blodgett and Hobson said they've learned in recent years that their district probably would not qualify for any federal cost-share funds anyway. A cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Corps concluded it wouldn't be cost effective for the government to repair the district's levee since it primarily protects a restored wetland -- not habitable structures or commercial properties, which have a higher monetary value.

"We're not protecting homes with that levee," Blodgett said. "We're protecting a restored wetland and a little bit of ag land, so it doesn't behoove us to spend the extra money to keep that levee up to the high expectations that the Corps has."

Joe Biggerstaff, longtime commissioner and secretary of the Mississippi/Fox Drainage and Levee District in Clark County, Mo., said even with a "minimally acceptable" inspection rating from the Corps, his district continues to qualify for federal cost-share funding. However, he doesn't know how much good that's doing.

In 2011, he recalled, the district's levee system sustained heavy damage after 11 inches of rain prompted the Fox River to "go on a tear."

Biggerstaff said levee repairs were estimated to cost roughly $500,000, and the federal government was supposed to pay 80 percent.

"We got no help except verbal support, because they didn't have any money," he said. "Congress never enacted any money for the Corps to give to us."

He said the district ended up doing the repairs on its own "with no government help."

Biggerstaff said the district had to raise its assessments to help pay the repair bills. Now he wonders if it's worth all the trouble to keep the district's levees at the "minimally acceptable" level.

"What did that get us? It didn't get us anything," he said.