Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Deteriorating Levees, Dams Endanger River Communities, Part I
Most communities are relatively prepared for flooding, but their infrastructure, like levees, that are meant to keep flood waters out are failing.
State- and federal-built flood mitigation systems in many Alaskan communities have deteriorated. Now residents are left with levees and dams that officials say could break when they need them most.
Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is recommending something be done.
The Kuskokwim River community of Aniak is just one of many with a flood mitigation system; Aniak's is a levee near the banks of the river.
“My biggest fear is this levee breeches,” says Aniak City Manager Ron Powell. “We have been written up three times by the Corps of Engineers.”
According to a series of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports, except for a stretch that is reinforced concrete, most of the Aniak levee is unacceptable. It is riddled with animal burrows, vehicle ruts, and the biggest structural problem—trees.
“This levee is in dire need of much repair, but our city doesn’t have the budget, the people or the equipment,” says Powell. “We just are not equipped to deal with it.”
But Aniak is not the only community that could be in trouble of system failure. Of the seven flood mitigation projects the Corps built, then turned over to communities, three now have real problems: Copper Center, Skagway and Hyder.
“Unfortunately, most of those local communities did not have the financial resources to really do the proper maintenance nor did they have proper maintenance crews to do so,” says Stephen C. Boardman, chief of the Corps Civil Project Management.
But, the problem appears to be much more widespread. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a few years ago the Corps was asked by Congress to do an Alaska Baseline Erosion Assessment—184 villages were inspected that had some level of erosion issues.
The results surprised them. “As we went to those communities, people were telling us not necessarily erosion issues, but flooding issues- whether it is ice jamming, or just natural flooding,” says Boardman.
Of the 184 communities, the Corps estimates at least 90 have flooding issues. But, since they were tasked with mapping erosion and not flooding, the data was never tabulated or published.
“A typical study through construction could easily be 10, 15 years,” says Boardman. “So you really have to plan ahead to prevent flooding” as opposed to quickly going out and putting something together.
But even the program that would put something up has been put on hold. Recently, the Obama Administration halted the Corps’ flood program that helped residents prevent some of the damage that can be caused.
“Which means that any other flooding efforts done will have to be specifically directed by Congress,” explains Boardman. “They have a period right now of no earmarks, so the issue is how do we get funding?”
City leadership in Aniak has been trying for years to get the repairs to their levee funded.
“I explained at the time that we did not have anywhere near the budget to have the engineering do a cost analysis on this thing and a project outline,” says Powell. “Sen. Begich asked me what I did have, and I told him I have a Corps of Engineering report with pictures, descriptions, everything, and he said send me that. I will work with that.”
That was two years ago.
According to Sen. Mark Begich's office, he did add the $1.2 million Aniak needs to “prevent loss of life and catastrophic damage” to a 2010 bill, but the money was later removed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Back in Aniak, one group is taking matters into their own hands. “You’ve got to be proactive instead of reactive to prevent damage,” says Mid Yukon-Kuskokwim Water Conservation District Manager Herman Morgan.
Morgan is gathering evidence of the levee’s problems to make a stronger case to get it repaired. “You measure 10 feet, then after break up you have a point of measurement, how many feet a year the dike is eroding,” he says. “Then we can go to the city or the state and say, ‘look, our dike is washing away and this is the documentation.’”
The Corps has asked Congress to fund a flood risk management assessment for the entire state, but so far, that has not happened.