The Recommended Elements of a National Levee Safety Program
First and foremost, the NCLS's recommendations for a National Levee Safety Program have a primary goal of increasing public safety by reducing the risks of catastrophic flooding associated with levees.
There is no single activity that will solve this problem, which has been decades in the making. The fix will not be immediate; it took decades for the present situation to evolve to its critical state, and it will take us many years to significantly improve levee safety. It will require a combination of technical solutions, behavior changes, and policy/program alignment by owners/operators, individuals, and governments at all levels. A concerted effort to understand and share responsibility for levee safety is the crux of the NCLS's recommendations. The NCLS has made 20 specific recommendations that fall into three main categories:
For more information, see Creating a National Levee Safety Program: Recommendations from the National Committee on Levee Safety.
In their report, the NCLS concluded that the benefits of a National Levee Safety Program are substantial. Reducing the potential for loss of life and human suffering alone warrants the cost of the program. The recommendations also are a good financial investment by significantly reducing flood damages to the public and private sectors and reducing overall disaster relief costs. Based on data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State of California, and the National Flood Insurance Program, it is reasonable to estimate that damages from levee failure or breaches reach more than $5 billion annually.
The NCLS made preliminary estimates of costs for all recommendations within the Report to Congress. They estimated that to implement its recommendations for a comprehensive and effective National Levee Safety Program, the federal share would be $878 million annually for the first five years of the program, and $360 million dollars annually in nonfederal cost share. The bulk of that federal investment ($600 million) would be in the proposed Levee Rehabilitation, Improvement, and Flood Mitigation Fund. In evaluating these estimates, one must remember that we do not yet know the magnitude of the problem because we do not have a complete inventory and inspection of the nation's levees.
Currently, responsibility for levee safety is assigned in an often uncoordinated and incomplete manner, distributed across all levels of government, and housed in different agencies. Aligning federal agencies and working with states and local governments will require a level of independence from any one agency to be effective. In the report, the NCLS highlighted the following three guiding principles as essential and believes an independent federal agency with strong guidance by state, tribal, and local governments and the private sector is the ideal model:
While the NCLS strongly believes that an independent agency is preferable, they did consider the option of embedding the National Levee Safety Program in a single existing federal agency, such as the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The NCLS determined that no existing agency alone has the full suite of expertise needed in the key areas of: 1) levee engineering; 2) risk mitigation in leveed areas; and 3) incentive and financial administration. The NCLS was also concerned that housing a national program in an existing agency would further stretch the resources of these agencies and would pose challenges to the chosen agency in coordinating alignment of other federal programs that they would be unlikely to overcome.
For more information, see Leadership, Independence & Coordination: Establish the National Levee Safety Commission.
The NCLS strongly believes that structures along canals "that constrain water flows and are subject to more frequent water loadings but that do not constitute a barrier across a watercourse" should be included in the
National Levee Safety Program, as they pose many of the same risks as levees and can have a direct impact on public safety.
For more information, see The Definition of a "Levee" under a National Levee Safety Program.
A national inventory of all levees is the first step in helping us understand the extent of the problem. Currently, there is no complete inventory of all the nation's levees. We know from an inventory of levees participating in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) programs that there are over 2,000 USACE levee systems, totaling over 13,000 miles of levees — but the NCLS has estimated that there may be as many as 100,000 miles of levees across the nation based on information from USACE, the State of California, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It is important that we know what levees are in the public and private inventory. We then can assess the reliability of these levees, characteristics of the population and property in the leveed areas, and prioritize where funds need to be spent first to protect human lives and critical infrastructure.
For more information, see Conduct a National Inventory of Databases & Expand the National Levee Database.
There are no national engineering standards for levee design, construction, operations, or maintenance; and various federal, state, and local agencies use different criteria. For example, the USACE has engineering policies, procedures, standards, and criteria for levees, but those standards only apply to levees that are enrolled in its programs; the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation maintains its own set of standards related to levees in its programs.
For more information, see Establish Comprehensive National Levee Safety Standards.
One of the NCLS's recommendations is to develop and implement measures to more closely harmonize levee safety activities with environmental restoration and protection requirements. Some of the questions the Committee believes are essential to consider include:
The NCLS is recommending examining opportunities to ensure that levee operations can be conducted in a manner respectful of the environment and protecting public safety. They have recommended that a standing Advisory Committee on Environment & Safety be established to provide advice on the coordination of environmental and safety concerns related to levee operations and maintenance, removal, rehabilitation, and new levee projects.
For more information, see Environmental Protection and Levee Safety Activities.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that liability concerns in government and industry may impede development and implementation of strong state levee safety programs throughout the nation. Concern also is growing in the engineering community and among levee districts, owners, and operators regarding potential liability that may be incurred through performance of levee services. These services include certification of data for National Flood Insurance Program accreditation purposes, as well as levee design, construction, and maintenance services. Informal surveys suggest that at least some engineering firms are declining to perform levee work, in part out of liability concerns. The NCLS is encouraging research to identify the current state of the law as it applies to liability. Research should also explore possible measures to prevent liability concerns from hindering development of robust levee safety programs.
For more information, see Swiftly Address Liability Concerns to Encourage Local, State, and National Levee Safety Programs.
Strong levee safety programs at the state and local level are a crucial component of an effective national program. The NCLS believes that states are best positioned to organize, implement, and oversee levee safety programs, as they have the combination of necessary legal authorities, statewide reach, and existing relationships with local governments to be successful. It is the intent of the NCLS's recommendations that states could allow for some regional and state variation and tailoring in programs to meet local needs and conditions while meeting national standards and objectives, making the effort more effective. Finally, states already are playing similar roles with regard to other infrastructure programs such as dam safety, water and wastewater treatment, etc.
Further, the NCLS understands that states cannot implement this program alone, nor can it be an unfunded mandate, and so designed an approach that encourages states by providing start-up grant funding for states to develop levee safety programs, as well as technical assistance to help develop the myriad of technical expertise needed (e.g., engineering specialization, risk communication, etc.) at all levels of the state. As the state programs mature, it is anticipated that further incentives, through preference in other federal programs, will be afforded to states that implement strong levee safety programs, and conversely disincentives established for states that take little or no action to address their shared responsibility for levee safety.
State representatives on the NCLS have played a key role in developing these recommendations. The NCLS will involve the states more heavily in the specific design of participating levee safety programs through expanded stakeholder involvement efforts.
For more information, see Strong State Levee Safety Programs in All States.
Flood insurance is one of the most effective ways to limit financial damages in the case of flooding and speed recovery of flood-damaged communities. However, despite the fact that the 1% annual chance flood standard used by the National Flood Insurance Program is not a safety standard, the exemption from flood insurance requirements have led many individuals and communities in leveed areas to mistakenly believe that they do not need flood insurance, and that they are protected from all flooding by that levee.
The NCLS has recommended that every structure in a leveed area should have flood insurance, and that the insurance premiums should be risk-based. That is, the insurance premiums would be developed to reflect the flood risks of living behind a levee and considering the levee's level of flood protection. The NCLS's recommendations aim at increasing the understanding that living behind even well-engineered levees has some risk. Because the recommendation is for risk-based premiums, it will help incentivize local communities to maintain reliable levees, good evacuation programs, flood proofing, etc., as a way to lower premiums for their constituents in leveed areas.
Without some significant regulatory changes by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), existing mandatory flood insurance purchase requirements for the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) mandated by the Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1873 and National Flood Insurance Reform Act of 1894 would not achieve the Committee's goal of risk-based flood insurance for all structures in leveed areas. However, the NFIP Reform process currently underway provides an opportunity for FEMA to implement this recommendation, and the Committee plans to be engaged throughout the process.
Depending on the outcomes of the NFIP Reform process, additional mechanisms may necessary in order to meet the objective of flood insurance for all structures in leveed areas, although the Committee has not explored other federal, nonfederal, or private sector approaches to promote or require flood insurance in leveed areas.
It is important to note that no levee provides full protection from flooding — even the best flood-control system or structure cannot completely eliminate the risk of flooding. Levees are designed to provide a specific level of protection, and larger flood events can cause them to be overtopped or fail. Levees also decay and deteriorate over time. Regular maintenance and periodic upgrades are needed to ensure that they retain their level of protection and continue to perform to their design. Maintenance can become a serious challenge as a levee system gets older. When levees do fail, they fail catastrophically — the damage may be more significant than if the levee wasn't present.
For more information, see All Properties in Leveed Areas Should Have Risk Based Flood Insurance.
The NCLS's recommendations are prefaced by recognition of the need for a broader national flood risk management approach. The legislation creating the NCLS limited its charge to developing recommendations for a National Levee Safety Program. It is hoped that by opening this dialogue on levee safety, the larger issue of floodplain management also will be considered and addressed.