Montana legislator testifies to Tester’s Senate panel

Senators hear how flood and levee issues are affecting Montana communities

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Jon Tester and his Senate colleagues today heard directly from a Montana lawmaker about communities being forced to foot the bill for expensive certification of flood levees, or face dramatic increases in flood insurance rates.

Montana State Representative Bob Mehlhoff of Great Falls spoke to the Senate Homeland Security Committee today at Tester’s invitation.  Mehlhoff described the challenge facing Great Falls and similar communities where the Army Corps of Engineers has refused to carry out certifications of levees, and pointed to potential solutions.

“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.  “They are, for the most part, unpaid people who thought their only responsibility was going to be to maintain levees… Now they’re told they’re the owners, they’re responsible, and they have liability problems.”

“Bob brings a local, on-the-ground 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.”

“It’s clear we must take steps to protect people and property from floods,” said  U.S. Senator Max Baucus,  “We’ve got to recognize Montana’s unique situation and keep unnecessary bills from piling up on our local officials who oversee levees. I’m going to keep working with Jon to make sure Montana voices don’t get drowned out in this process.”

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, their area may be labeled “flood hazard zones,” dramatically increasing their flood insurance rates—even if the risk of flooding is minimal.

In many cases, however, the Army Corps has declined to carry out the certification.  Communities like Great Falls are being forced to pay hefty bills to certify their levees.

Tester demanded answers when he learned in March that while the Army Corps refuses to certify levees in Great Falls, the agency has continued certifying levees in other parts of the country.

Later that month, Tester hosted a meeting which brought Great Falls local leaders—including Mehlhoff—together with representatives of FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers.  The federal officials heard directly from Montanans and pledged to work toward a solution.

Tester and Baucus have introduced legislation that would require the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct levee inspections and share the cost of such inspections with local communities.

Video of Tester’s exchange with Mehlhoff is available HERE.