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

Establish Comprehensive National Levee Safety Standards

The Nation's Levees Today

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 in those leveed areas — remain unknown. There are also no national standards for levee design, construction, operations, maintenance, rehabilitation, repair, improvement (i.e., improving the level of flood risk reduction provided by a levee system), or removal.

Much of our nation's levee infrastructure is decades old and was built without the benefit of modern engineering. Even responsible levee owners, following operations and maintenance plans developed when their levee was built, may not be using the most current and best engineering practices, potentially increasing the risk of levee failure. In addition, changes in demographics have led to increased development behind earthen levees originally built to protect cropland from flooding and often built without meeting engineering standards appropriate to residential or commercial development in the leveed area.

The result of these factors has led to the current situation where risks of loss of life, property damage, and impacts to our natural environment are increasing.

Without a single set of national levee safety standards, the level of flood risk reduction and the robustness of levee design and construction will continue to vary considerably across the country, creating a situation of uncertainty and unknown risk for those living in leveed areas. Lacking clear national standards and policies, individuals, engineers providing levee services, levee owners/operators, and even governments, do not know where to turn for the most useful information and up-to-date guidance regarding levees and public safety.

The Recommendations for National Levee Safety Standards

The importance of establishing and adopting national levee safety standards is woven throughout the recommendations for a National Levee Safety Program developed by the National Committee on Levee Safety. Three recommendations, in particular, lay the groundwork:

  • Develop and adopt a set of national levee safety standards for common, uniform, use by all federal, state, and local agencies. The national standards should incorporate policies, procedures, standards and criteria for a range of levee types, canal structures, and related facilities and features. The national levee safety standards should be comprehensive and include standards for levee design, construction, operations, inspection, maintenance, emergency management, rehabilitation, improvement, and removal. Once national levee safety standards have been established, federal legislation should be passed requiring that all federal agencies with authority over levee planning, design, regulation, or funding, or that own, operate, or maintain levees adopt and enforce the Standards. (Recommendation 4)
  • Develop and adopt national tolerable risk guidelines for levees and structures along canals. Tolerable risk guidelines help answer the question: How much protection is reasonable to provide populations against the risk of property damage or personal injury due to floods? Tolerable risk guidelines enable informed prioritization of public investment where there is a possibility of high consequence (e.g., large population at risk if the levee fails) and also where the probability of failure is high; improved citizen and government knowledge and understanding regarding risk; and enhanced public debate regarding the true benefits and costs of flood risk mitigation alternatives. (Recommendation 5) prioritization of public investment where there is a possibility of high consequence (e.g., large population at risk if the levee fails) and also where the probability of failure is high; improved citizen and government knowledge and understanding regarding risk; and enhanced public debate regarding the true benefits and costs of flood risk mitigation alternatives. (Recommendation 5)
  • Develop and adopt the recommended Hazard Potential Classification System to assist federal, state, and local governments to better understand the risk and consequences of levee failure. The Hazard Potential Classification System will be useful in setting priorities for action (e.g., where high hazard levees require immediate action) and funding. This is an interim step until the adoption of national tolerable risk guidelines. (Recommendation 3) .. Develop and adopt the recommended Hazard Potential Classification System to assist federal, state, and local governments to better understand the risk and consequences of levee failure. The Hazard Potential Classification System will be useful in setting priorities for action (e.g., where high hazard levees require immediate action) and funding. This is an interim step until the adoption of national tolerable risk guidelines. (Recommendation 3)

Proposed Hazard Potential Classification System

Due to a lack of data at this time regarding probability of failure, definitions and classifications should initially be based solely on consequences of levee failure. As more information becomes available, the Hazard Potential Classification should be replaced by national tolerable risk guidelines to inform decisions related to the priority and relative urgency of investment and actions related to levees.

Hazard Potential Classification

Number of People Potentially Inundated

Number of People Potentially Inundated to Depths of = 3 Feet

Additional Considerations

High

>= 10,000

>= 10,000

Includes areas of consequence where critical life safety infrastructure is at risk.

Significant

> 1,000

< 10,000

Includes areas of consequence where there may be significant potential for large economic impacts or losses.

Low

< 1,000

0

n/a

The Committee has also recommended that the National Levee Safety Program work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other partners to develop technical assistance materials, develop a training program for all engineers in the levee safety community, and provide direct technical assistance to states, communities, and levee safety professionals to communicate and encourage the use of national standards. (Recommendations 10 and 11) The Committee has also recommended that the National Levee Safety Program work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other partners to develop technical assistance materials, develop a training program for all engineers in the levee safety community, and provide direct technical assistance to states, communities, and levee safety professionals to communicate and encourage the use of national standards. (Recommendations 10 and 11)

National levee safety standards could be implemented nationwide with an approach similar to the National Building Code. Although developed as a single comprehensive code, governments adopting the code — including state and local governments — may adopt it whole or adjust it to fit their local conditions. It is also up to the state, municipality, etc. to determine the means for enforcing the standards they adopt. Even if the code were not adopted or enforced by any given jurisdiction, there is a benefit to national standards — professionals may choose to follow the national code, recognizing the benefits of adhering to a national standard. National levee safety standards could be implemented nationwide with an approach similar to the National Building Code. Although developed as a single comprehensive code, governments adopting the code — including state and local governments — may adopt it whole or adjust it to fit their local conditions. It is also up to the state, municipality, etc. to determine the means for enforcing the standards they adopt. Even if the code were not adopted or enforced by any given jurisdiction, there is a benefit to national standards — professionals may choose to follow the national code, recognizing the benefits of adhering to a national standard.

The Committee has recommended that states establish their own levee safety programs and adopt the national levee safety standards. It has proposed a grant program to help states establish and strengthen levee safety programs that would support adopting and communicating the standards to local and regional governments and levee owners and operators. The Committee has also concluded that state adoption of national levee safety standards is a critical component of establishing a state levee safety program and has recommended it be a prerequisite for accessing the proposed National Levee Rehabilitation, Improvement, and Flood Mitigation Fund. The Committee has recommended that states establish their own levee safety programs and adopt the national levee safety standards. It has proposed a grant program to help states establish and strengthen levee safety programs that would support adopting and communicating the standards to local and regional governments and levee owners and operators. The Committee has also concluded that state adoption of national levee safety standards is a critical component of establishing a state levee safety program and has recommended it be a prerequisite for accessing the proposed National Levee Rehabilitation, Improvement, and Flood Mitigation Fund.

National levee safety standards, if applied correctly with appropriate judgment, could help establish a recognized "standard of care" related to levees and may help reduce the exposure of public agencies and private engineering firms to litigation and liability. Because levees affect individuals, local and regional agencies, state agencies, and the federal government, levee safety must be a shared responsibility requiring action by all levels of government — federal, state, regional, and local — and levee owners and operators. No single level of government, agency, or organization can overcome these challenges alone. National levee safety standards, if applied correctly with appropriate judgment, could help establish a recognized "standard of care" related to levees and may help reduce the exposure of public agencies and private engineering firms to litigation and liability. Because levees affect individuals, local and regional agencies, state agencies, and the federal government, levee safety must be a shared responsibility requiring action by all levels of government — federal, state, regional, and local — and levee owners and operators. No single level of government, agency, or organization can overcome these challenges alone.

 

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Updated February 2011