State wants more help with levees

The Great Falls Tribune

by Karl Puckett

Montana’s congressional delegation is pushing legislation that would require the federal government to bear more of the financial burden of costly river levee certifications, which they say threaten to overwhelm rural communities financially.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is requiring levees to be certified as part of a national effort to modernize floodplain maps.

If the levees are not certified, what are now considered protected areas would be designated as floodplain areas, said Laurence Siroky, bureau chief of water operations of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Residents would have to purchase flood insurance or face higher rates if they already have insurance, he said. In addition, property values also would likely fall, he said.

Cascade County Public Works Director Brian Clifton also said that residents would be subject to new regulations on building improvements. On Friday, Tester met with residents in Great Falls to hear concerns about levy certification. City and county officials from as far away as Glendive, Malta and Glasgow attended.

About 1,200 structures are located behind the levees in West Great Falls and Vaughn.

John Demarias, public works director for Malta, estimated the cost of hiring a private firm to do the inspection would be $250,000.

“This is going to be cost prohibitive for us,” he said.

Residents told Tester they want the Army Corps of Engineers to do the inspections.

“I will tell you the Army Corps is very resistant to doing these certifications for whatever reason,” Tester told the crowd.

Siroky said the Army Corps inspects levees annually but certification involves more work and

cost. On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., introduced legislation that would allow Montana communities to request the Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate and certify levees regardless of who originally built them.

Tester, who is backing the bill, said the legislation would require the federal government to pick up 65 percent of the cost of certification.

He said Montana is not the only state that wants the Corps of Engineers to certify levees. He said he’s working with senators from Rhode Island, Iowa and Louisiana and other states to turn up the pressure the Army Corps.

“It’s all over the country and I think we have an opportunity to try to apply some pressure,” he said.

Tester said he also is trying to get the two federal agencies to work more closely together.

The new maps are expected to be finalized by August 2011, Siroky said.

However, if FEMA is not notified by April 28 of certification plans, the agency will proceed with making the maps showing areas decertified and in the flood plain, officials said at the meeting.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to get this decision put off,” Tester said.

Siroky said Great Falls and Vaughn are the only areas in the state facing the immediate deadline because they are going through the map modernization process, but sooner or later other towns will face the same issue, he said.

Those who attended the meeting said they were frustrated the federal agencies seem to be working at cross-purposes.

“That’s kind of scary,” said Sandy Mares of the West Great Falls Levy District.