Creating a National Levee Safety Program: Recommendations from the National Committee on Levee Safety
Critical Infrastructure, Unknown Risk
We are at a critical juncture in our nation's history — risks of loss of life, property damage, and damage to our natural
environment behind levees are increasing. Levees across the nation often have been central tools in flood risk
management, reducing the effects of floods on people, property, and the environment. The infrastructure that we
depend on during emergencies — roads, hospitals, drinking and wastewater facilities, and power generating facilitates —
also depends on levees.
Although we do know that there are levees in all 50 states, the total number, location, and condition of many of the
nation's levees — 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, and tens of millions of people live and work
Even though levees were originally constructed to protect property, often they have inadvertently increased flood risks
by attracting greater development to the floodplain. In fact, many levees built to protect agricultural fields now
protect large urban communities. The potential consequences of levee failure in these communities can be
devastating. But we as a nation have failed to pay attention to this essential piece of our infrastructure. Many of our
levees are deteriorating as the result of decades of neglect. Even levees that have been maintained over the years may
not have been brought up to the most recent engineering standards.
The nation's attention was refocused on the role of levees as a critical piece of the nation's infrastructure most recently
with the Midwest floods (1993 and 2008), California floods (1986 and 1997), and, of course, the tragedy of Hurricane
Katrina (2005). Coupled with how much we rely on the nation's levees for our life, property, and economy, are we
promoting the conditions for the next disaster? When and where the next significant levee failure will occur is not
known. What we do know is that it will occur.
How Did We Get Here?
How did we, as a nation, arrive at a point where the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it will require a $50-
billion investment over the next five years to repair and rehabilitate the country's levees?
From the earliest days of the United States until the 1930s, levee construction was sporadic and unsophisticated,
without the benefit of engineering or scientific expertise. After great devastation and loss of life from the Mississippi
and Ohio River floods in the late 1920s and 1930s, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was directed, at full
federal expense, to take a more active role in levee design and construction, resulting in thousands of miles of robust
levee systems. Many of these levees, which make up the backbone of the nation's levee system, are now over 50
In 1986, Congress required that local communities
contribute a share of the cost of flood control projects
constructed by USACE, including levees. These additional
financial burdens on local communities made affordability
of new levees and repairs of existing levees an emerging
issue and began a shift from watershed-focused planning to
individual projects focused on benefiting only the
communities willing to share the project cost.
Meanwhile, the National Flood Insurance Program,
established in 1968 to address the inability of the public to
secure privately backed insurance for economic losses from
flooding, designated the 1%-annual-chance event ("100-
year flood") as a special hazard zone, which would require
the purchase of flood insurance for those holding federally
backed mortgages and elevation of new structures above
the 1% chance flood level. If that floodplain is protected by
a levee constructed to withstand the 1%-annual-chance
event, the mandatory flood insurance requirement and
structure elevation requirement are waived. This policy led
to political and financial pressure on communities to build
their levees to the 1% standard, a dangerous adoption of an
actuarial standard as a safety standard.
When combined, aging levees, increased development in the floodplain, and increasing frequency of flooding due to
climate change point to an overall increase in the risk of flooding due to levee overtopping or failure. The question is
not if a levee system will fail causing catastrophic damage, but when and where the next failure will occur.
The National Committee on Levee Safety
Congress created the National Committee on Levee Safety to "develop recommendations for a national levee safety
program, including a strategic plan for implementation of the program." The Committee 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 Committee is made up of representatives from USACE, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),
numerous state, regional, and local agencies, and the private sector. Committee members have expertise in
engineering, law, public administration, and communication.
The Committee presented their findings and recommendations for a National Levee Safety Program in a draft Report to
Congress in January 2009. Today, the Committee is continuing with its charge of developing a strategic plan for
implementation of a National Levee Safety Program by coordinating with federal agencies to the extent possible under
current authorities and resources.
Creating a National Levee Safety Program
The National Committee on Levee Safety 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 and within all states that, in
turn, provide oversight and critical levee safety processes.
- A foundation of well-aligned federal agency programs and
1. Comprehensive and Consistent National Leadership
Currently, responsibility for levee safety is often uncoordinated and
incomplete, distributed across all levels of government (federal,
state, regional, local) and housed in different agencies and
functions within each level of government. This shared and
diffused responsibility impedes development of comprehensive
safety policies and programs, impairs ongoing coordination, and prevents a sustained focus on this issue. Effectively
addressing levee safety across the country requires a strong, independent, national program that will integrate the
diverse expertise from existing agencies at all levels of government and from the private sector.
A National Levee Safety Commission charged with identifying and communicating risks associated with levees,
developing national safety standards, facilitating dialogue and research on important levee related topics (e.g., research
and development, facilitating dialogue with environmental interests), providing technical materials and assistance to all
levels of government, encouraging improved safety measures and programs through grants, and overseeing national
and state levee safety program development and implementation activities is necessary to provide a coordinated and
consistent National Levee Safety Program.
2. Strong Levee Safety Programs in All States
The cornerstone of an effective National Levee Safety Program is
effective state programs following a consistent set of national
safety standards and mitigation protocols. States are well
positioned to provide assistance and oversight to local levee
owners/operators, and coordinate activities in a systems approach
among entities within and among states; they already have such
roles with regard to other elements of infrastructure and the
environment. State levee safety programs will allow for a degree
of variation and tailoring, meeting local needs and circumstances,
rather than a national, one-size-fits-all approach.
Twenty-three states have an agency with some responsibility for levee safety. Although this is a first step toward
ensuring strong levee safety programs in all states, the Committee found the roles and resources of existing state
programs to be widely variable. To support the establishment and maintenance of state levee safety programs that
meet a minimum safety standard, the National Committee on Levee Safety has proposed a new levee safety grant
program to assist states in achieving strong levee safety programs and a National Levee Rehabilitation, Improvement,
and Flood Mitigation Fund to address both structural and nonstructural levee rehabilitation needs.
3. Alignment of Existing Federal Programs
To ensure that investments in our nation's levees and programs to protect the people who live behind them are
effective, all federal programs that impact community and individual behavior in leveed areas should be aligned toward
the same goals of risk reduction, developing resilient and reliable levees, and protection of human life and property.
Federal agencies with expertise are called upon to provide technical or
programmatic guidance, assistance, support, and applicable training in
the development and implementation of a National Levee Safety
Program. Federal agency adherence to levee safety standards, such as a
National Levee Safety Code once it is developed, is important to
promote nationwide consistency in important technical standards.
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, involved public, and shared
responsibility for protection of human life and mitigation of public and
private economic damages.
Except for a few cases where new authorities might be called for,
federal agencies could use their existing authorities to perform these
Federal agencies, such as USACE and FEMA, are implementing portions of the Committee's recommendations for a
National Levee Safety Program under current authorities. For example, FEMA has worked to clarify and communicate
more clearly its terminology in response to the Committee's recommendation that the term "levee certification" used by
the National Flood Insurance Program be changed (e.g., to "compliance determination") to explain that the process does
not imply a guarantee or warrantee of the levee's condition. USACE is moving forward with developing a Hazard
Potential Classification System and Tolerable Risk Guidelines for federal levees; the Committee hopes that these efforts
will be a solid foundation for the national standards it has recommended.
To create a comprehensive and effective National Levee Safety Program, some elements of the Committee's
recommendations will require Congressional authorization and funding. The Committee will support legislative efforts
to implement its recommendations, and will continue to engage with the federal, state, local, regional, and tribal
governments, levee owners and operators, environmental groups, and technical associations to share the findings and
recommendations from their Report and continue the dialogue on levee safety.
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Updated February 2011