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Levee Safety Program Improves Flood Risk Reduction Infrastructure

In 2011, major flooding along the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Souris, and other rivers thoroughly tested U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) water management and flood risk reduction systems. Beyond the physical testing, however, these flood events highlight the importance of the USACE Levee Safety Program and its benefits to those living or working behind flood risk reduction infrastructure.

Included in the USACE Levee Safety Program are approximately 14,700 miles of levees, which includes levees operated and maintained by USACE; federally authorized or built levee systems, but locally operated and maintained; and locally built, operated, and maintained levees that have qualified to be in the federal program under Public Law 84-99 (Rehabilitation and Inspection Program).

The Levee Safety Program, begun in 2006, has initiated an effort to take multiple pieces of levee safety guidance and procedures and consolidate them into a single comprehensive policy, or Engineer Circular (EC), that will guide the program. While this may seem like a rather routine undertaking, in reality it is not. Early in the scoping process for the EC, the levee safety policy and procedures team (LSPPT) realized that numerous stakeholders and partners participate with USACE to manage levee systems. It followed, then, that stakeholder and sponsor feedback would be helpful in shaping the program’s policy guidance framework.

“Responsibility for assessing, characterizing, and communicating the risks associated with levee systems has to be shared among federal, state, local, and tribal partners,” said Eric Halpin, USACE special assistant for dam and levee safety. “We cannot do this alone. Our partners and stakeholders are critical to making sure people depending upon levee systems know their risk, know their role, and take action.”

The LSPPT in late 2010 and throughout 2011 embarked upon extensive stakeholder involvement, soliciting input from its various internal communities of practice while also gathering input from levee system sponsors and stakeholders external to USACE. The LSPPT hosted webinars in December 2010, and February and March 2011. It followed up with two, three-day workshops in May and June. Each of the webinars built upon the previous and while the workshop agendas were the same, USACE held them in different geographical locations.

Currently the LSPPT is reviewing comments and drafting the chapters for the Levee Safety Program Engineer Circular. Once the draft EC is complete, USACE plans to host another series of outreach activities for sponsors and stakeholders.

Late 2012 will mark the completion of the first round of USACE periodic inspections for 60 percent of the federally authorized levees in the USACE program, another critical component of the USACE Levee Safety Program. The funding, $90 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, provided for this next level of inspection within the Levee Safety Program, the periodic inspection, which is conducted by a multidisciplinary team and led by a professional engineer. It includes a more detailed, comprehensive, and consistent evaluation of the condition of the levee system and is conducted approximately every five years on federally authorized levees in the USACE program. Activities under the periodic inspection include evaluation of routine inspection items; proper operation and maintenance verification; evaluation of operational adequacy, structural stability, and safety of the system; and it compares current design and construction criteria with those in place when the levee was built. A recent appropriation of an additional $20 million will bring USACE to approximately 70 percent of its federally authorized systems.

An advantage of conducting these initial inspections through ARRA is that the private-sector firms performing this work are providing USACE an independent and consistent assessment of the condition of these levees. “We’re finding consistent deficiencies across the United States, especially with unwanted vegetation and encroachments,” said Jamie McVicker, the USACE periodic inspection project manager from the St. Louis District. “We’re concerned not only with the integrity of the levee but also accessibility during floodfighting. You don’t want vegetation to impede bringing vehicles in to fight a flood. We also have excessive animal burrows, deficiencies with drainage and closure structures, and erosion issues. Pump station deficiencies, sometimes contributing to safety concerns, are also routinely documented.”

In late 2011, USACE officially opened to the public the National Levee Database (NLD). In 2006, USACE began development of the National Levee Database model. The Water Resources Development Act of 2007 complemented this effort by expanding USACE’s authorities to collect information for all levees in the nation for the database. Since then, USACE has been refining the complex database, performing detailed surveys of the levees in the USACE program, and working with stakeholders to develop the best strategy for data collection of the remaining estimated 100,000 of levees in the nation.

The database is a living, dynamic information source that provides visualization and search capability for the first time on the location and condition of levee systems nationwide. Currently, the NLD includes detailed information on the levee systems within the USACE program. USACE continues to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to include those levees identified in its Mid-term Levee Inventory.

The database includes detailed information on levees and floodwalls that is relevant to floodfighting, design, construction, operation, maintenance, repair, and inspection. The database serves as the single national source of levee information to facilitate risk communication and links data from public sources such as weather data from the National Weather Service, physical data from the U.S. Geological Survey, hazards data from FEMA, and critical infrastructure data from the Department of Homeland Security.

The NLD is intended for use by:

  • federal, state, tribal, regional, and local agencies;
  • levee system sponsors, operators, and maintainers;
  • emergency managers; and
  • the public.

For example, emergency managers recently used the NLD to help inform 2011 floodfighting activities. Residents will be able to view the levees in their neighborhoods, which will allow them to make better-informed decisions about their safety.

USACE anticipates the upcoming year to be as action-packed, as it continues to move the program to higher levels using stakeholder and partner involvement and by leveraging more state-of-the-practice improvements, such as the NLD.

This article first appeared under a slightly different title in the 2011-2012 edition of  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces.

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