A Shared Responsibility for Levee Safety

Clif Warren, Water

July 31, 2020

When the levee breaks, it seems the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) often gets the blame. However, the blame just as often stems from misperceptions and misunderstandings of what levees can do and who is responsible for their upkeep.

Even perfectly designed and maintained levees can be overtopped by catastrophic flooding that exceeds the structure’s design capacity. Which brings up a salient point: Levees can reduce the frequency of flooding so certain land-use activities can take place behind them, but they cannot eliminate all flood risk.

Another common assumption is that all federal levees are also federally maintained. While the USACE does design and build levees, non-federal local sponsors are responsible for the ongoing maintenance of many of the structures that help protect 10 million people and $1 trillion in land and real estate. Members of the public may not understand that the majority of the 14,400 miles of levees in the federal Levee Safety Program are built and maintained through an alliance between the USACE and local partners, which include municipalities, agricultural groups, and private owners.

In the coming months, USACE will publish a document that seeks to better describe and define the responsibilities of each party that participates in the USACE Levee Safety Program. Formally designated Engineer Circular 1165-2-218, the document describes an overarching risk-based management approach and emphasizes the distinct yet related roles for the USACE and the sponsors.

The engineer circular has been developed in consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which operates the National Flood Insurance Program and associated flood insurance rate maps.

For levee sponsors, it is important to understand how USACE lays out responsibilities for each party. For example, the USACE maintains the national levee inventory, conducts inspections every five years, and completes periodic risk assessments. Sponsors, meanwhile, handle levee operations and maintenance, conduct more frequent inspections, develop emergency preparedness plans, and lead the response in a flood emergency.   

For many municipal entities, maintaining levees is just one item on a long and growing list of responsibilities. At Olsson, we have the expertise and experience to help levee sponsors understand their obligations and provide the engineering and technical assistance required to maintain levees.

It’s worth noting that federal funding assistance is available for the repair of levees damaged by catastrophic floods, but only if the structures were properly maintained and had been accepted under the Levee Safety Program.

Such funding serves as one of many incentives for levee sponsors to fulfill their obligations under the program. Certainly, levees have their limits, but that does not limit their importance to the nation’s portfolio of flood-control infrastructure.

Clif is a former USACE employee who managed the dam and levee safety program in the Tulsa District. Reach him at 918.900.6093 or cwarren@olsson.com

Photo of a levee breach near Hamburg, Iowa, courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.