Army Corps reviewing levee certification duties

Great Falls Tribune

by Ledyard King

WASHINGTON — The agency that used to certify levees in Great Falls and other communities across the nation is looking at whether to resume that task, but officials didn’t sound hopeful Wednesday.

At a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Montana Democrat Sen. Jon Tester asked Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, whether the Corps of Engineers had decided whether to resume the certifications it abandoned in 2008, after Hurricane Katrina.

“We’re looking at whether that’s a possibility for us in the future,” Darcy said.

Tester then asked about addressing the issue by “harmonizing” criteria with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is in the process of updating the nation’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) program, which requires existing levees be recertified or face removal from FEMA’s new maps, which would force homeowners in those areas to purchase costly flood insurance.

“We’ve done some work on it, but to be quite honest we’ve not harmonized at this point,” Darcy said.

The agency might not have a choice if Tester has his way. He and Sen. Max Baucus, his fellow Montana Democrat, reintroduced legislation that would require the Army Corps of Engineers to certify levees on request by local communities, and to waive cost-sharing for small rural communities and those with volunteer levee district managers. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., introduced a similar measure in the House, saying the Army’s decision left “struggling homeowners up a flooded creek without a paddle.”

Last month, Baucus secured a commitment from Darcy to reassess the Corps’ decision not to fund levee certification in Montana, but she offered no timetable Wednesday on when that internal review would be completed.

The agency’s decision not to certify levees left several Montana areas — including the West Great Falls Flood Control Levee District on the Sun River — worried about the two remaining options. They might have to come up with tens of thousands of dollars for private certification or — if the levees were decertified — homeowners could have to pay much more for insurance.

Tester told Darcy there “isn’t an engineering firm around” that can certify the levee, leaving Great Falls area residents in a precarious position.

“And you know what? I think there’s a lot of Great Falls, Montanas up and down the different drainages in this country,” he said.

He said that is why he and Baucus introduced legislation that “gives the Corps not only the authority, but the responsibility, to certify those.”

“It may or may not cost money. You may be able to do it within your budget — you may need additional funds, but the fact is it’s got to be done or folks are going to be put in floodplains, (and) businesses are not going to be allowed to grow,” Tester said. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited Great Falls in August, at the invitation of Tester and Baucus, to tour the Sun River levee. FEMA is a part of the Department of Homeland Security.