What is the Government Doing to Fix Flood Control Levees? Nothing

Half of U.S. Population Protected from Floods by Crumbling Levees

Women and children pray at observance of 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans Marks 10th Anniversary Of Hurricane Katrina. Mario Tama / Getty Images

 The federal agencies assigned by law to improve the nation’s critical flood control levee system have made almost no progress in doing so, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 assigned six levee safety-related activities to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), including reconvening the national committee on levee safety, developing a national levee condition inventory and implementing a multifaceted levee safety initiative.

What are Levees and Where are They Located?

Levees are manmade structures such as earthen embankments or concrete floodwalls. Levees play a vital role in reducing the risks of flooding. The failure of a levee can result in the loss of lives, homes, and property. Along with highways, bridges and utility systems, levees are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure now left crumbling from years of neglect and lack of funding.

FEMA has estimated that there are more than 100,000 miles of levees nationwide, located in 22% of U.S. counties, where as much as 50% the U.S. population lives.

According to Corps and FEMA officials, the federal government “does not have a program overseeing levees across the nation, and no national standards exist for levee safety,” wrote the GAO.

Katrina Drove the Law

Congress passed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act in response to the failure of the levees surrounding New Orleans during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster.

At least 1,300 people died after waves and torrential rains driven by the storm overtopped and broke down the levees flooding most of the city. According to FEMA, the Katrina flooding cost taxpayers more than $16 billion in federal disaster recovery funds.

But FEMA and the Corps Have Gone Dead in the Water

According to the GAO’s report, in the more than two years since President Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, FEMA and the Corps have taken no action at all on five the law’s six levee safety tasks:

  • Reconvening the national committee on levee safety
  • Implementing a multifaceted levee safety initiative
  • Submitting a report on the state of U.S. levees, the effectiveness of the levee safety initiative, and any necessary congressional actions
  • Submitting a report including recommendations on advisability and feasibility of a joint dam and levee-safety program
  • Submit a report including recommendations that identify and address legal liabilities of engineering levee projects

In addition, reported the GAO, the Corps is over a year late in completing the sixth task assigned by the Act, a report detailing the condition of all U.S. levees. Since the first five tasks require data from the levee condition inventory, they will just have to remain on hold.

“The Corps has been working on its development of a national levee inventory, but the Corps and FEMA have not begun work on other key national levee safety-related activities required by the act and do not have a current plan for doing so,” noted the GAO.

Why No Action?

Is it all just too hard? No, as you might have already guessed, both FMEA and the Corps told the GAO they had been held back “resource constraints,” meaning they need money from Congress to pay for the levee improvement programs.

“Corps officials said that improving the inventory will be an ongoing process,” wrote the GAO. “The Corps had allocated $5 million for the inventory in fiscal year 2016, and the Corps’ fiscal year 2017 Operations and Maintenance budget justification lists an allocation of an additional $5 million to further expand the inventory.”

The Corps agreed that failure to complete the levee safety tasks would place citizens at risk from flooding and could create financial risks for the overall disaster relief program.

The GAO stated it had “determined that, except for the national inventory of levees, the Corps did not specifically allocate funds for national levee-safety-related activities.”

What the GAO Recommended

GAO recommended that FEMA and the Corp use the money they have to come up with a plan – with achievable timelines – for completing the levee safety tasks assigned to them and to ask Congress for more money if they need it.

“Without a plan, including milestones for accomplishing these activities using existing resources or requesting additional resources as needed, the agencies are unlikely to make further progress on implementing the remaining activities required by the act,” the GAO concluded.