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

Strong State Levee Safety Programs in All States

The Current Situation

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 — as well as population and property they protect, and who is responsible for their operations and maintenance — remains unknown.

The National Committee on Levee Safety (NCLS) estimates there may be as many as 100,000 miles of levees in the nation, with tens of millions of people living behind them. While there are approximately 14,800 miles of levees enrolled in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers programs (including those built by the Corps and locally maintained) and another 14,000 - 16,000 miles estimated to be operated by other federal agencies such as the National Resources Conservation Service, the majority of the nation's levees are not federally operated or maintained. With few exceptions, the levees outside of federal programs are not subject to any federal or state oversight, levee safety criteria, standards or guidelines.

Recent surveys by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials and the Association of State Floodplain Managers found that only 10 states keep any listing of levees within their borders and only 23 states have an agency with some responsibility for levee safety. None of the states surveyed had comprehensive levee safety programs.

Levee Safety and State Leadership

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 a central tool in flood risk management, reducing the effects of floods on people and property. But levees are a double-edged sword. Communities and the public often do not understand the limitations of the levees and the risk that remains. Much of the infrastructure on which we depend, especially during emergencies — roads, hospitals, drinking and wastewater facilities, and power-generating facilitates — also depends on levees. The potential consequences of levee failure can be devastating. Citizens, levee owners/operators, and local, state, and federal governments all have a role to play in levee safety and reducing flood risk; state leadership is critically important.

The NCLS has adopted the vision for a National Levee Safety Program as "an informed public and reliable levee systems working as part of an integrated approach to protect people and property from floods." Strong state levee safety programs in all states are essential to achieving that vision. The NCLS recommended the implementation of many National Levee Safety Program activities by state levee safety programs (Recommendation 14).

The Importance of States

States, not the federal government, are best positioned to organize, implement, and oversee levee safety programs within their borders, as they have the combination of necessary legal authorities to implement rules, regulations and procedures, and statewide reach and relationships with local governments to be successful. States are already playing similar roles in floodplain management and other infrastructure programs, such as dam safety.

A comprehensive state levee safety program, as envisioned by the NCLS, would include public involvement and risk communication; standards for levee classification, inspection, construction, operation, maintenance and emergency preparedness; and regular levee inspections — all integrated with comprehensive flood risk management, including sound floodplain management. Neither state levee safety programs nor a National Levee Safety Program will take the place of levee owner and operator responsibilities for levee operations, maintenance and repair.

In order to be recognized by the National Levee Safety Program and meet eligibility criteria for certain incentives, such as grants, training, technical assistance and guidance, the NCLS proposes that state programs be established with minimum statutory authorities, program rules, regulations and procedures, and that the state program have sufficient resources.

While it is the primary goal of the National Levee Safety Program to have strong state levee safety programs, the NCLS recognizes that regional and state variations may require other approaches.

  • In the absence of a state levee safety program meeting the national standards and objectives of the National Levee Safety Program, the NCLS would encourage the National Levee Safety Program to provide technical and financial assistance to local governments within the state if that is in the best interest of levee safety.
  • It is within a state's authority to delegate responsibilities for levee safety actions to communities or other political subdivisions, and this can be done within the context of a strong state levee safety program.
  • Interstate levee systems would best be managed through interstate cooperative efforts.

Federal Support for State Levee Safety Programs

The NCLS understands that few states would implement comprehensive state levee safety programs without federal assistance and cooperation. The NCLS designed an approach that encourages the establishment and strengthening of state levee safety programs by providing federal start-up grant funding to develop state levee safety programs, as well as technical assistance to help develop the technical expertise needed, including engineering specialization and risk communication.

The NCLS recommends Congress authorize and appropriate $113 million annually for capacity building and technical assistance for state programs, funding which is essential to encourage the establishment and maintenance of effective programs. The NCLS recommended a 75% federal cost-shared program during the first five years of the National Levee Safety Program. The NCLS believes that this federal investment in state safety programs will reap a many-fold reduction in the need for federal disaster assistance, reducing the overall federal investment.

After the first five years of the national program, the NCLS has recommended an ongoing match of state funds for authorized levee safety expenditures. As state programs mature, the NCLS recommended that further incentives (e.g., preference in other federal programs) be afforded to states that implement strong programs, and conversely disincentives be established for states that take little or no action to address levee safety issues.

Recommendations for Developing Strong State Levee Safety Programs

In order to be recognized as a participating state levee safety program by the National Levee Safety Program, the NCLS proposed statutory authorities; minimum program rules, regulations and procedures; and that the state program have sufficient resources.

State Statutory Authorities Envisioned by the NCLS

The following authorities are recommended by the NCLS as prerequisites to recognition by the National Levee Safety Program (NLSP) as a participating state:

  • To participate in the NLSP as established by the federal government;
  • To receive such funds as the federal government may make available for program implementation, and to distribute some portion of those funds to local government entities, consistent with National Levee Safety Program requirements;
  • To adopt or establish standards for levee classification, inspection, construction, operation, maintenance and emergency preparedness;
  • To perform, or require performance of, inspection of levees, and to prepare, or require preparation and submittal of, inspection reports and records;
  • To require or perform development and implementation of emergency action planning procedures;
  • To prepare reports of levees within the state, including location, condition, maintenance, areas protected and risks posed thereby, and to publish and distribute such reports to public or private entities;
  • To communicate with and educate local government and the public about the risks and benefits associated with levees and other flood-risk reduction measures, and to promote prudent practice with regard to levees;
  • To require that local government develop and implement emergency action planning procedures and evacuation plans for imminent or actual levee failure;
  • To enter public or private property for safety inspections or to perform emergency action; and
  • To promulgate rules, regulations and procedures to implement these statutory authorities.

State Rules, Regulations and Procedures of Effective State Levee Safety Programs

As with the National Levee Safety Program, the NCLS envisions state programs that address the full breadth of levee safety activities. The NCLS recommends that state programs have the rules, regulations and procedures in place to:

  • Coordinate levee safety activities among entities within the states owning, operating, regulating or using levees, and between those entities and the NLSP;
  • Receive and review application packages from entities within the state for grants from the NLSP, to submit acceptable applications to the NLSP, and to receive and disburse grant funding from the NLSP;
  • Request an initial inspection by the Army Corps of Engineers of the levees within the state's jurisdiction;
  • Inspect, or require inspection of, the levees within the state's jurisdiction at least annually and after all significant high-water events (with inspections performed under the supervision of a registered engineer who possesses a levee training certificate from the NLSP);
  • Provide information to the national levee database for the levees within the state, and provide updates at least annually, following the standards for the database, including identifying the hazard potential classification of levees;
  • Implement a levee risk communication and public outreach/education program, including publication of an annual report on the state levee safety program and on the results of levee inspections, and provide public notification of the maintenance ratings and risk behind levees;
  • Adopt the interim National Levee Engineering Guidelines, and when available, the National Levee Safety Code, for all levee projects under state jurisdiction or involving state funds;
  • Require that all communities protected by significant- and high-hazard potential levees develop emergency action and evacuation plans in accordance with National Levee Safety Program guidance;
  • Adopt measures as needed to require consideration of nonstructural measures associated with any levee related activities;
  • Have a Hazard Mitigation Plan approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), updated to specifically reflect current condition and activities associated with levees; and
  • Require that states provide liaison and coordination on environmental permitting actions.

Adequate State Resources to Implement Levee Safety Programs

Funding, qualified personnel, equipment and vehicles to conduct elements of a state program are the responsibility of states, local governments and owners, and principally would be provided by the states. The NCLS recommends that states have adequate resources for implementing their programs before they are recognized as participating programs by the National Levee Safety Program.

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Updated March 2011

Levee Safety on Tribal Lands

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 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.

The Role of Levee Owners & Operators

It is the opinion of the NCLS that it is most effective and efficient for owners/operators to continue to be the primary responsible parties for crucial day-to-day activities. Recommendations to create a national program and state programs cannot and should not take the place of the responsibilities of owners/operators (in some cases owners/operators are federal and state government agencies) to:

  • Perform routine operations and maintenance (O&M) including routine inspection, routine maintenance, and appurtenant works maintenance;
  • Perform on-site, specific training;
  • Fulfill specific role in Floodplain Management Plans (in coordination with state and local governments);
  • Provide local communication and education of risks;
  • Provide flood fighting and notification of distress;
  • Coordinate with local/regional flood fighting;
  • Participate in shared/new construction;
  • Perform repair, rehabilitation, and/or replacement with sufficient property rights; and
  • Develop and communicate emergency action plans (in coordination with state and local governments).

Federal Responsibilities in the Absence of Adequate State Programs

In the absence of a qualified state program, the NCLS recommends that the National Levee Safety Program should:

  • Conduct or cause to be conducted an inspection of high- or significant-hazard-potential levees after significant flood events and at least every five years, after an initial federal inspection and assessment, and update the National Levee Database.
  • Provide inspection reports and findings to local emergency management officials.
  • Conduct a program of public information concerning the presence of levees, their condition, and associated risks, including notification of the state legislature and governor.
  • Take other and further action as the deemed appropriate to encourage, publicize the benefits of, and foster support for a qualified state program.