Inspections Reveal Problems with Iowa’s Flood-Control Levees But Maintenance Lags

If you live in a floodplain you are, and always will be, at risk.

Broad federal requirements are allowing many levees to fall through the cracks in maintenance and leave the reliability of others unknown, according to an IowaWatch investigation.

Although federal officials say most levees probably will survive the next flood, inspection reports over the past four years found a substantial number in “unacceptable” condition, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to relegate them to “inactive status” and kick them out of its inspection program.

That means they may be at a higher risk of failing during a flood because they don’t meet federal standards.

Most landed in a catch-all category called “minimally acceptable” that fails to provide a clear picture of the levee’s reliability. The category is so broad it includes minor deficiencies and serious ones, such as animals burrowing large holes in levee walls and embankment instability.

Even for levees that earn the inspectors’ best rating of  “acceptable,” federal officials routinely recite a caveat - they still cannot guarantee it will stand up to everything the weather could throw at it.

Moreover, many of the levees are old and need updating, a Corps levee inspection manager for Iowa’s Rock Island district told IowaWatch. Most Iowa levees were built in the early 1960s or late 1970s and are approaching their designed lifespan of 50 years.

And then, there is the unknown – an extensive number of privately-owned levees of unknown reliability lace the Iowa landscape, Corps officials say.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Click on the icons in the map to check on a levee's rating. If a report is available, click on the link to read the full engineer's report on the levee. Note: Locations are approximate

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DEPENDABLE LEVEES VITAL IN FLOOD-PRONE IOWA

Levees are supposed to help manage flood risk. Yet, they scored a overall D- in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 national report card on America’s infrastructure. The Corps oversees about 10 percent of the nation’s levees, with 2,500 in its levee safety program, according to the National Committee on Levee Safety.

In Iowa, a state with tens of thousands of miles of rivers and streams, levees play an immensely important flood protection role, particularly in urban areas, including Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Waterloo and Burlington and in smaller communities such as Hamburg, Anamosa, Oakville and New Hartford. They protect homes, agricultural land, government buildings, businesses, roads and streets and sewage treatment plants.

The question facing authorities, experts say, is not whether these levees will be put to the test, but when.

It’s just a matter of time before floods like the devastating ones in 1993 and 2008 in Eastern Iowa and 2011 in Western Iowa strike again, experts at the University of Iowa’s Stanley Hydraulics Lab and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources say.

In late May – even as Cedar Rapids and Iowa City were still rebuilding from the 2008 flood – many feared that time had arrived again. Residents and emergency officials in Johnson County remained on edge for two weeks because sustained and heavy rainfall brought Coralville Lake dangerously near the top of the spillway, forcing the expenditure of about $5.5 million for repairs and to build and later remove temporary flood barriers erected as a precaution against a flood that threatened but never occurred.

MANY LEVEES DON'T GET REGULARLY INSPECTED

Corps inspectors regularly monitor 77 Iowa levees in the Rock Island and Omaha districts. They inspect once every five years and then annually as often as possible. However, the Corps is aware of other levees that protect urban communities that are not in the federal inspection program and do not receive regular inspections. The Corps makes these communities aware of the federal program but cannot require them to join.

Among the 77 levees, only four of them rated acceptable in the most recent inspection over the last four fiscal years. Seventy-three fell into the broad category of “minimally acceptable.”

Eight levees were in unacceptable condition in the most recent inspections, and Corps reports now show them as inactive because local governments failed to keep them up to standards.

The Corps at one time inspected more Iowa levees than it does now, but over the past four fiscal years it has labeled 16 inactive. That means it no longer inspects them, and the federal government will not provide federal money for rehabilitation if a flood damages the levee. The Corps, however, still will provide flood-fighting support and materials such as sandbags when a flood strikes.

"IT CONSUMES YOU"

When water goes over levees, or the levees fail, the results can be catastrophic and traumatic.

Mary Lanz lived through such an experience when a levee overtopped in Oakville, in southeast Iowa, in 2008.

An arial view of the levee protecting the agricultural community of Oakville when it overtopped on June 14, 2008.

Provided by Two Rivers Levee and Drainage Association

An arial view of the levee protecting the agricultural community of Oakville when it overtopped on June 14, 2008.

“It consumed you,” she said. “It was your life.”

She remembers sweeping and cleaning while moving out of her home before it flooded, thinking she didn’t want to move back in to dirty floors. But the floodwaters came, and the image of its calling card on her swept floors remains fresh in her memory.

“You come back, and it looks like chocolate fudge pudding,” Lanz said. “You’re scooping it out, and you think, ‘that was really stupid wasn’t it.’”

Oakville is one of dozens of small towns and cities in Iowa that sit next to the Iowa River, and it’s situated right before the river meets the Mississippi.

Lanz and other members of this agricultural community understand the value of a levee’s dependability. In 1993, Oakville’s levee kept them dry; in 2008, it overtopped and put their town 6 feet under.

Since the levee overtopped in 2008, the town’s population shrunk from 442 to around 170. It’s just now finishing the last three recovery projects with help from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

FLOOD CONTROL ACT'S BENEFITS LIMITED

The Corps is authorized to conduct inspections of levees they control or ones under the federal Flood Control Act that are locally controlled. The Corps can help rebuild a levee after it has been damaged in a flood event with federal money as long as it is in their program.

Nevertheless, IowaWatch interviews, examination of studies and inspections reports and the Corps’ Flood Control Act program reveal serious deficiencies in many levees and many limitations in the program that restrict its effectiveness. Among them:

  • The Corps cannot require local authorities to let it inspect their levees or impose consequences if they fail to correct the deficiencies because its inspections are only guidelines.
  • Some major urban communities are protected by levees that scored unacceptable ratings or were kicked out of the Corps’ program.
  • The program does not allow the Corps to aid local levee sponsors with preventive maintenance.
  • The Corps, when rebuilding a flood-damaged levee, cannot spend money to strengthen or widen it or to raise its height even if overtopping caused the damage.
  • The Corps cannot guarantee federal aid to rebuild a locally-sponsored levee even if it’s in the program.

INSPECTIONS THOROUGH BUT NOT REQUIRED

The Corps of Engineers conducts two types of inspections: a five-year inspection, which is in-depth and produces a report and rating, and routine inspections, which produce a rating, but no report. In a five-year inspection, at least three engineers walk the length of levee to conduct an exhaustive search for deficiencies.

Federal law doesn’t require either type of inspection. Ron Fournier, a spokesman for the Rock Island District, said the law allows the Corps to set guidelines for inspections. But, until after the New Orleans levee breaks during Hurricane Katrina, the Corps had little funding for five-year inspections, he said.

Iowa’s Rock Island District has completed 34 five-year inspections since the 2010 fiscal year, with nine proposed for later this year.

Only one levee was rated as acceptable. It fell to a minimally acceptable rating in its next routine inspection.

However, a levee that rated minimally acceptable has since improved to an acceptable rating in its following routine inspection.

Twenty-four of the levees inspected received a rating of minimally acceptable and eight were found unacceptable.

One of the unacceptable levees since has improved to a minimally acceptable rating.

Iowa’s Omaha District has given 35 levees five-year inspection ratings since the 2010 fiscal year. Of those, 30 were scored minimally acceptable and five rated unacceptable.

"MINIMALLY ACCEPTABLE" RATING VAGUE, BROAD

Although the common dictionary definition of the phrase “minimally acceptable” means something is barely above failure, the Corps’ definition is less dire. Levees that the Corps rates as minimally acceptable frequently contain serious deficiencies.

For example, loss of stabilizing berms is a problem cited in some minimally acceptable levees. Once they are gone, the next high water event will cause more erosion on the levee or cause slope instability and bank caving where the dirt slides off the side of the levee.

Other examples of deficiencies are the failure to have emergency evacuation and flood preparedness plans and allowing unwanted vegetation on the slope that can undermine the levee.

In some reports for minimally acceptable levees, the inspector noted that some parts of the levee system are unacceptable and added this warning: “Using engineering judgment it was determined that the deficiencies would not compromise the integrity of the levee during the next flood event if adequate surveillance and high-water operations are implemented.” Those would include Corps-approved operations such as sandbags and adding dirt and sand to the levee during a flood.

Although minimally acceptable levees can have a wide range of deficiencies, the Corps doesn’t consider them dangerous enough to prevent them from performing, according to Cory Haberman, Corps emergency management specialist and program manager for routine levee inspections within Iowa’s Rock Island District.

Levees that the Corps rates as “unacceptable” have problems, such as serious erosion, that can weaken a levee wall. Some lack flood fighting supplies and training. Another example of a serious problem includes instability in levee slopes, which can also lead to a weakened levee wall.

INACTIVE LEVEES PROTECT MANY IN IOWA

A levee that stretches through the cities of Waterloo and Evansdale has been inactive since 2010, which means the Corps no longer inspects the levee to ensure its reliability.

The Corps’ report for the three-day inspection took place in May 2010 and found severe degradation of a concrete culvert, insufficient sod cover, culverts silted closed and vegetation in vegetation-free zones.

The deficiencies have been corrected, said Jamie Knutson, associate city engineer for Waterloo, except for the removal of trees that are within the vegetation-free zone and some piping that needs to be physically inspected.

The city has asked the Corps for a variance on the tree removal requirement because it would cost $2 million to remove them, Knutson said. Trees can be a problem on a levee if they are blown over and rip a hole in the levee or if the roots cause water to seep into the levee and weaken it.

The levee has received no Corps inspections since becoming inactive, but Knutson said Waterloo has continued regular maintenance and looked over the levee on its own.

Jamie Knutson, associate engineer for Waterloo, looks over a portion of the levee protecting the city. The levee remains inactive, but Knutson is confident the levee will perform as it is intended to during a flood.

Katelynn McCollough/IowaWatch

Jamie Knutson, associate engineer for Waterloo, looks for a portion of the levee protecting the city. The levee remains inactive, but Knutson is confident the levee will perform as it is intended to during a flood.

The levee could lose its FEMA accreditation the longer it remains inactive, but Knutson has yet to hear of how long it would take before that happens.FEMA accreditation affects insurance and building requirements for an area. An area behind a FEMA accredited levee will be shown as a “moderate-risk area.”

Waterloo and Evansdale are independently responsible for their segment of the levee, but the levee cannot become active until both segments are brought to Corps standards.

Local governments in charge of the levees rated unacceptable typically have two years to fix problems unless the Corps decides special circumstances justify more time, Fournier said. Those levees have to be brought up to a rating of minimally acceptable.

The consequence for not addressing them is removal from the Corps program, which means that levee is rated inactive and loses eligibility for federal aid if damaged in a flood.

“When we say it’s inactive,” Fournier said, “then that levee is at a higher risk for potential failure during a flood event because it was not meeting our standards.”

Fournier added that levees do not need to have an acceptable rating to be part of the program.

FEDERAL FUNDS NOT FOR LEVEE MAINTENANCE

Some local officials complain that the program doesn’t help local governments pay for maintenance or repairs not related to flood damage.

The Corps can’t help with such costs “even if you … show them a spot where your levee is going to fall into the river,” said Jack Bell, a trustee of the Two Rivers Levee and Drainage Association in southeast Iowa. “It’s just ridiculous.”

“They can fix it out here now for maybe $50,000 to $60,000, or we let it break and it’s millions of dollars of taxpayer money gone and they still fix it and put it back the way it was,” said Kenneth Oetken, another trustee of the Two Rivers Levee and Drainage Association.

Fournier would agree with Oetken. “It would be cheaper to fix an erosion problem than to fix a break,” he said.  But the federal program doesn’t provide for that, he said.

The Two Rivers Levee and Drainage Association oversees a federally authorized, but locally owned and operated levee that is over 40 miles long, stretches from Oakville to Burlington and protects around 50,000 acres.

Local sponsors have the ability to tax the local tax base in order to pay for levee maintenance. However, such costs can add up quickly.

Oetken and Bell explained that since the levee overtopped and flooded Oakville in 2008, the association has spent $3 million to verify that the condition of the levee was acceptable for FEMA accreditation, on top of regular maintenance costs.

The number of mandates from the Corps keep growing, along with constant rule changes, said Vicki Stoller, administrator of the Two Rivers Levee and Drainage Association for 17 years.

COST-BENEFIT RULE CALLED UNFAIR

One troubling regulation to Stoller is the cost-benefit ratio. It means locals could spend millions of dollars to keep a levee up to standard and still be denied levee repair funding.

This means that for every dollar spent on repairs, there needs to be a dollar of economic value found in that area.

Stoller argued the policy is not fair. Imagine, she suggested, that a flood breached a levee and destroyed your home, and then the Corps says the levee is not worth fixing because the value of the area does not meet the formula.

How do you think you are going to feel?” Stoller asked.

Fournier sees the cost-benefit ratio as a federal employee looking out for the taxpayers.  But he says he can empathize with a homeowner living behind a damaged levee that didn’t meet the cost-benefit ratio.

“I would feel very unhappy,” he said. “The only way to fix that is to change the law through Congress.”

This story was published in The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Hawk Eye (Burlington), the Keokuk Daily Gate, The Telegraph Herald (Dubuque), the Marengo Pioneer Republican and the Business Record (Des Moines).

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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