Central Oversight of Levees Needed, Arkansas Lawmakers Told

June 16, 2009

Arkansas is putting its residents and economy at risk by failing to adopt a centralized system for flood-levee oversight, the state’s lawmakers have been told.

Representatives from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission recently reported to members of the Legislative Joint Audit Committee that many levees in the state may not pass federal certification and could crumble under heavy rains.

Even if a disastrous flood doesn’t result immediately, lack of federal certification would cost property owners in levee districts because they would have to start buying costly flood insurance, said Randy Young, executive director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.

“That’s the train wreck that’s going to happen in the next two to three years,” Young said.

Rep. Mike Patterson, D-Piggott, said it would be a disaster if people in his county suddenly had to start paying for flood insurance.

Without repairs, many of the levees – especially in northern and eastern Arkansas – could fail during heavy rains, resulting in catastrophic flooding.

“If the levees start failing because of … a repeat of (the disastrous 1927 floods), there is a great possibility that we could have a flood or a possible worse flood than we had, with more loss of lives, would you agree with that?” asked Rep. Mike Burris, D-Malvern.

John Sweeney, chief engineer and deputy director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, said Burris’ scenario was possible.

In 1927, nearly 100 people died when more than 6,500 square miles was covered with water. Thirty-six Arkansas counties were under water up to 30 feet deep in places, according to the “Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.”

A state audit of levee districts conducted last fiscal year was presented to the lawmakers Friday. It said no state agency is responsible for maintaining a complete list of the districts and there are no procedures to approve the construction or registration of new levees.

“A comprehensive listing of levees within the state is a vital step in assuring levees are operational and meet sound engineering standards,” state auditor Doug Spencer said.

Many levee districts no longer have active boards, some have none and often the districts do not have enough money to afford regular repairs of the levees.

Along with compiling a list of levees and developing a set of standards for maintenance and inspection, the audit report recommended developing uniform financial-reporting requirements for levee districts, along with rules for merging districts found to be out of compliance with accreditation requirements.

Young warned that such improvements would require money.

The committee voted to refer the recommendations to the Legislative Council for other legislative committees to review and possibly draft legislation to be considered in a future legislative session.

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