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Published: Thursday, 5/15/2008

What about private levees?

THE flooding that left several Midwestern states under water in this wetter-than-usual spring, has prompted new worries about the reliability of thousands of earthen flood levees built to protect not only farmland but populated areas. The admission by the government that it is largely in the dark about how many such levees there are in the country or what their condition may be gives little comfort to the public about the potential risks faced.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that builds and oversees levees, has inventoried the roughly 2,000 levees it either maintains or helps maintain. After the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, Congress made sure the corps had money to complete its initial inventory and assessment.

That project alone resulted in troubling discoveries, including corps levees in Missouri and Illinois that fell far short of the flood protection they're supposed to deliver. But there are untold numbers of other levees - thousands perhaps - that are privately owned and maintained about which the corps is clueless.

While many of these are farm levees, meant to keep water out of fields, others protect big cities and small towns, not to mention industries and businesses. For example, flooding in March breached private levees close to the southeastern Missouri towns of Poplar Bluff and Dutchtown.

In another instance, the Wood River levee in Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, is supposed to protect a ConocoPhillips refinery, where flooding could mean an environmental and economic disaster. Water seeped through the levee a few years ago but it held. Next time, who knows?

Many of the levees are old, with deteriorating infrastructure says Robert Bea, a levee expert from the University of California at Berkeley. They were built to withstand relatively common floods, not the big ones like the Great Flood of 1993, he said, when 1,100 levees were broken or had water spill over their tops.

Last year Congress moved to better identify the problem by passing the National Levee Safety Act. It directed the corps, for the first time, to inventory all private levees. But Congress has yet to provide funding for the project.

In the meantime, flooding across a swath of Midwestern states in March killed nearly a dozen people and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes.

Before the next major flood, or next big test of levee strength, all private levees need to be identified and their problems assessed. Only then can the considerable task of repairing them begin to reduce potential risk.

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