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
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
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
- 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