Great Falls legislator speaks at Senate session on levee requirements

Great Falls Tribune

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A Montana state lawmaker, Rep. Bob Mehlhoff of Great Falls, spoke Wednesday to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee at the request of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Mehlhoff, a Democrat, expressed alarm at the prospect of communities being forced to foot the bill for expensive certification of flood levees or face dramatic increases in flood insurance rates.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has refused to continue carrying out certifications of levees, citing a lack of funds.

“What I see as a solution to this is the Corps of Engineers needs to take over responsibility for levee certification,” Mehlhoff told the committee. “The Corps has the data all the way back to the construction of our two levee systems in Cascade County, plus data from annual and periodic inspections.

“Local levee district elected officials need to be given back their original responsibility of overseeing levee maintenance only,” Mehlhoff added.

“Bob brings a local, on-theground perspective when it comes to the financial burden being placed on our communities to certify levees,” Tester said. “I think his suggestions make a lot of sense. The bottom line is that we need to find a solution to this challenge that doesn’t break those communities.”

Corps officials have said they would do certifications if Congress boosts its budget, although a news release from Tester states the agency continues to certify levees in other parts of the country.

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the federal government has required communities vulnerable to flooding to certify that their levees are up to code. If a community’s levees are not certified, the area may be labeled a “floodhazard zone,” dramatically increasing their flood-insurance rates — even if the risk of flooding is minimal.

In March, Tester hosted a meeting, which brought Great Falls local leaders together with federal officials to work toward a solution.

Tester and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., have introduced the Rural Community Flood Protection Act, which would require the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct levee inspections and share the cost of such inspections with local communities. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has introduced similar legislation in the House.