Tester brings common sense solution to local levee issue

Great Falls Tribune

by Bob Mehlhoff

With the recent passage of the Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act, which included Sen. Jon Tester’s levee provision, folks who live in west Great Falls, Vaughn and other Montana cities finally can breathe a sigh of relief about the possible catastrophic costs to certify their levees. For years, bureaucratic wrangling between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers has left Great Falls and Vaughn without the right level of certification for the levees along Sun River. Even though the Army Corps inspects the levee each year, FEMA can’t accept the Corps’ information.

Tester’s addition to the law will require the Army Corps of Engineers to provide to FEMA enough quality information from their annual inspections to allow FEMA to certify levees as safe. This certification will be done without the expense to local residents of hiring private engineering firms to gather information which the corps could gather from their inspections.

It took close to three years of hard work by our levee district representatives, residents of our levee districts, elected officials and, most of all, Tester to accomplish this solution. In March of 2010, Tester was able to halt the de-accreditation of the Great Falls levee system.

Had our levees been deaccredited, the cost of flood insurance would have gone up triple or more, and the many building restrictions would have made area improvements virtually impossible. In April of that year, Tester brought FEMA to Great Falls for a town meeting on levees. In August, Tester convened a “Summit on the Levee,” where Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano listened while Tester, members of both flood districts boards and myself expressed our concerns about implementing the “FEMA Solution” of levee certification. We were able to show the Secretary how well-constructed the levee system was because the meeting actually took place on the levee.

Finally, after almost three years of hard work, Tester’s levee provision in the Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act became law this month. “It seems like a straightforward solution but one that had eluded officials,” Missoula’s floodplain administrator, Todd Kleitz, recently said.

Through the hard work of people along our Montana levee systems, especially Tester, we have a common-sense solution. Forcing the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA to work together will solve the certification problem and should not require increases to the either of their budgets. It will save folks who live along levee systems throughout the U.S. — and particularly along the Sun River — a great deal of money. All of Montana will benefit, too. Levee areas’ tax base will not drop because the investment in property folks make will continue to hold value.

You hear from people that government is broken, and nothing gets done. The people who say that haven’t met the hardworking people I did on this levee certification project.

Robert “Bob” Mehlhoff represents Great Falls House District 26.