LINCOLN — A Nebraska official says the prolonged flooding along the Missouri River is sure to revive a call to create a state inspection program of private flood-control levees — built by farmers, cabin owners and others and not subject to inspection now.
Brian Dunnigan, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, pointed to a two-year-old recommendation from a national levee safety task force established after Hurricane Katrina.
The task force called for establishing state levee safety programs to supplement inspections now done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on levees it has built or overseen. The task force also recommended a national inventory of all private flood-control dikes.
Although the 14,000 miles of federal corps levees must follow design rules and face regular inspections, the estimated 100,000 miles of private levees across the country don't, raising questions about their maintenance and integrity.
One concern is that such levees might have been fine for their original purpose — to protect farmland or weekend cabins from short-term high water — but now are being counted on to protect more expensive, full-time homes.
Dunnigan said that when discussions of levee safety come up, he is reminded of an old saying in his business: There are two types of levees — those that have failed and those that will.
“Any time you have flooding like we do now, there will be a lot of attention on creating state programs,” he said.
Currently the State of Nebraska, like most states, is responsible for inspecting flood-control dams. Nearly 2,400 dams of 25 feet in height or higher are inspected, of which half are private dams.
But neither Nebraska nor Iowa has a state levee inspection program.
The extent of private flood-control levees in Nebraska is impossible to estimate, Dunnigan and other officials said, because they aren't inspected and aren't part of any inventory. But Cedar Creek, Neb., along the Platte River in Cass County, is an example of where a private levee was built.
Most private levees are probably north of Omaha on the Missouri River, or along the Platte, Elkhorn and other rivers.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a system of levees in 1954 through the Omaha-Council Bluffs area and points south on the Missouri, said John LaRandeau, a civil engineer with the corps in Omaha. But a proposal for a similar set of federal levees north of Omaha was never funded, he said.
Most of the Iowa side of the river is protected by levees. The Nebraska side has dikes generally corresponding to populated areas or power plants, such as near Nebraska City, Brownville, Peru and Lake Wa-Con-Da, north of Nebraska City.
Federal levees were not built north of Omaha for several reasons, LaRandeau said.
One reason is that the Missouri River north of Omaha has scoured out a deeper channel over the years, increasing its capacity and decreasing the need for flood-control levees.
LaRandeau said the riverbed at Sioux City, Iowa, is about 10 feet deeper than in 1967, when the series of flood-control dams was completed.
As for privately constructed levees, some are well-made, he said, but others are merely dirt pushed up by farmers who hoped to stave off high flows from the river. But even well-made levees fail — the breach near Hamburg, Iowa, occurred in a federal levee, LaRandeau pointed out.
“This flood is a different animal,” he said, because of the sustained high flows.
John Winkler, general manager of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, based in Omaha, said his agency manages about 18 miles of federally inspected levees along the Missouri River, including those that protect Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue. The NRD also manages 80 miles in the Papillion Creek watershed and along the Platte River.
Winkler said he's all for better levee design and inspections but thinks money would be better spent improving the levee system than creating a duplicative state inspection force.
The National Committee on Levee Safety estimated that it would cost $170 million to set up levee safety programs in all 50 states. And the cost of building levees has risen because of higher design standards adopted after Hurricane Katrina.
“Government is very good at studying problems but horrible at fixing them,” he said.
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