Recommendations for a National Levee Safety Program ...From the National Committee on Levee Safety

Align Federal Programs to Promote Levee Safety

Lack of National Leadership for Levee Safety

Responsibility for levee safety often is assigned in an uncoordinated and incomplete manner, distributed across all levels of government and housed in different agencies. This unaligned and diffused responsibility impedes the development of comprehensive safety programs and policies, impairs ongoing coordination, and prevents a sustained focus on the issue.

Although we do know that there are levees in all 50 states, the total mileage, location, and condition of levees in the nation — and the population and property they protect — remain unknown. Preliminary estimates indicate there may be more than 100,000 miles of levees across the United States, with tens of millions of people living and working behind them.

At the federal level, several agencies have a role in levee safety, either through programs covering levees built or operated under their jurisdictions (including the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), or as part of a broader national program such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program. These federal programs vary in scope, scale, and available resources. There is currently no single agency with the authority to effectively align existing federal programs to promote effective incentives and disincentives for increased levee safety.

The National Committee on Levee Safety

Congress created the National Committee on Levee Safety (NCLS) to develop recommendations for a national levee safety program, including a strategic plan for implementation of the program. The NCLS adopted the vision of an involved public and reliable levee systems working as part of an integrated approach to protect people and property from floods, and has been working toward this goal since October 2008.

The NCLS is made up of representatives from the USACE, FEMA, numerous state, regional, and local agencies, and the private sector. NCLS members have expertise in engineering, law, public administration, and communication.

Recommendations for a National Levee Safety Program

The NCLS presented their findings and recommendations for a National Levee Safety Program in a draft Report to Congress in January 2009. The NCLS recommended a National Levee Safety Program based on three central concepts:

  • Leadership via a National Levee Safety Commission that provides for participating state levee programs, national technical standards, risk communication, and coordination of environmental and safety concerns;
  • Strong levee safety programs in all states that provide oversight and critical levee safety processes; and
  • A foundation of well-aligned federal agency programs and processes.

The NCLS recommendations span from a broad call for alignment of federal programs behind the principles of the National Levee Safety Program to program-specific recommendations.

Adopt the Spirit and the Letter of the National Levee Safety Program

The NCLS recommends that all federal agencies with levees under their jurisdictional control should adopt the National Levee Safety Code after it is put into place (Recommendation 4) and comply with other requirements of the National Levee Safety Program. This will promote nationwide consistency, common approaches and messages related to risk communication and public education, and improved coordination and harmonization of federal levee-related programs and requirements.

Align Existing Federal Programs to National Levee Safety Program Goals

To ensure that federal investments and policies have the greatest possible impact, all federal programs that significantly impact governmental and individual decision-making in leveed areas must be aligned toward the goal of reliable levees, an informed and involved public, shared responsibility for the protection of human life, and mitigation of public and private economic damages. Federal programs should not only be aligned with each other to maximize the benefit and reduce the potential of programs working at cross-purposes, but can be used as an enticement for states and local communities for responsible levee stewardship (Recommendations 14 and 17). Alignment of federal programs to provide incentives falls in the broad categories of:

  • Savings / funding to the community.
  • Eligibility for federal funding.
  • Priority for federal funding.
  • Cost sharing requirements.

The recommendations for aligning federal programs may benefit property owners in leveed areas, levee owners and operators, local and regional governments, and/or states and tribes. The NCLS considered this recommendation, however, with two principles in mind:

  • Immediate disaster response functions or funds should not be included as incentives and disincentives. To withhold such immediate funds is inhumane, flies in the face of public safety, and does little to promote levee safety behavior.
  • Promoting synergies between the National Levee Safety Program and other federal programs (e.g., the National Flood Insurance Program) should not result in unintended consequences.

The NCLS cites several specific examples of federal programs that must be aligned toward the goals of the National Levee Safety Program, including:

  • The proposed levee safety grant program will assist states, local governments and levee owners and operators in building strong levee safety programs (Recommendation 15). This funding should encourage states to support the set-up and maintenance of levee safety programs and to perform basic activities such as updating and maintaining a levee inventory, inspection, reporting, notification/public outreach, and coordination.
  • The proposed National Levee Rehabilitation, Improvement, and Flood Mitigation Fund should be used for the combination of structural and nonstructural approaches that would most efficiently maximize overall risk reduction and meet requirements to ensure that levee owners and operators maintain a high level of upkeep of their levees and engage in responsible activities related to the public living and working behind those levees (Recommendation 16).
  • FEMA's flood hazard mapping program should be augmented to further support the National Levee Safety program, especially in the areas of risk identification and communication in leveed areas (Recommendation 19). Examples of recommended activities include identifying levee systems and associated levee system failure consequence zones; redesignating areas impacted by levees on digital Flood Insurance Rate Maps (DFIRMs) as Zones AL or XL (rather than A/AE or X) to better communicate the greater flood risks in levee system impacted areas; and providing additional flood hazard information on FEMA's website if it is provided by local, regional, or state entities and verified.
  • FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program should develop risk-based insurance premiums for areas of residual flood risk and map the residual risk areas behind levees in their DFIRMs, requiring the purchase of flood insurance in those areas (Recommendation 18). This recommendation aims at increasing the understanding that living behind levees has some risk (sometimes referred to as residual risk), protecting a greater number of home and business owners from catastrophic financial loss, and increasing risk awareness and preparedness of the public residing behind levees. (Note: See also Understanding the National Committee on Levee Safety's Recommendations: Purchase Requirements for Risk-Based Flood Insurance.)
  • The National Flood Insurance Program's Community Rating System (CRS) Program should be revised to provide credits to a community when their state has a levee safety program that participates in the National Levee Safety Program and augmented to increase or decrease maximum credits allowed for certain CRS activities including, but not limited to, Activity 620 (Levee Safety) (Recommendation 20).

Interagency Committee on Levee Safety

Because there are many federal agencies and programs whose policies significantly impact governmental and individual decision-making in leveed areas, the NCLS recommends that a federal Interagency Committee on Levee Safety be formed to support recommendations for aligned federal programs. The Interagency Committee on Levee Safety would encourage the establishment and maintenance of effective federal and state programs, policies, and guidelines intended to enhance levee safety for the protection of human life and property through:

  • Facilitating information exchange among federal agencies and state levee agencies;
  • Analyzing possible alignment of federal programs to identify incentives and disincentives to governments and the citizenry that have participating state levee safety programs; and
  • Coordinating activities among federal agencies concerning implementation of the Report to Congress from the National Committee on Levee Safety.

Potential participants in the Interagency Committee on Levee Safety include: the Department of Agriculture; the Department of Defense (US Army Corps of Engineers); the Department of Energy; the Department of Homeland Security; the Department of Housing and Urban Development; the Department of Interior; the Department of Labor; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Federal Emergency Management Agency; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission; and other federal agencies, departments or programs with a nexus to levee safety as determined by the National Levee Safety Commission.


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Updated February 2011

Levee Safety on Tribal Lands

Federally recognized tribes represent sovereign entities within the United States, and different tribes, as with different states, will have different capabilities in implementing levee safety programs. Nevertheless, it is essential that efforts be made to ensure that people living on or near tribal lands also will benefit from levee safety programs, and it is the intent of the NCLS that levee safety programs be established by tribes as well.

Federal Agencies with Existing Levee Programs and Expertise

The following federal agencies have been identified as having existing programs and/or expertise that would provide a direct benefit in the development and implementation of the National Levee Safety Program:

  • US Army Corps of Engineers
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • US Bureau of Reclamation
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • US Geological Survey
  • US Environmental Protection Agency
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • International Boundary and Water Commission
  • National Resource Conservation Service