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Legislative Updates — January 24, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Levee Task Force has completed its final report, with recommendations on how to pay for maintenance and repairs, and how to best gauge the current condition of levees.

The average levee along the Arkansas River is 70 years old, but in some areas there is little or no regular activity to maintain them, evaluate the need for repairs or levy assessments on property owners who benefit from them.

In fact, the 26-member task force characterized people’s attitudes toward levees as “out of sight, out of mind.”

The task force made 17 recommendations in four major areas. First, we need a much more detailed analysis of current conditions. Making an accurate assessment is not simple. Some levees are privately owned and protect a relatively small area. Others can be 50 to 60 miles long, and are compromised by roads that have been cut in them over the years. Many are overgrown or were abandoned long ago.

The task force limited its definition of a levee to a structure designed to protect property and people from a 25-year flood, which has not been abandoned and which is operated by a federal, state or local government body. Local entities include levee districts.

It can be difficult to determine whether or not a levee has been abandoned. The task force included in its inventory an important levee although it is in poor condition and has no functioning board of citizens or levee district to supervise maintenance.

Local boards are important, to evaluate the condition of levees and collect assessments from property owners for maintenance. Federal funding is often the major source of revenue for levee repairs, but those funds won’t be allocated if the local board is not active.

For that reason, the legislature enacted new laws allowing vacancies on levee boards to be filled. It’s also why the task force recommended that all levee district board positions be filled, through procedures set out in state law.

State aid should be a financial incentive for levee districts to sign up for federal programs that provide the bulk of funding for repairs. In order to qualify for those federal dollars, the boards of levee districts need to maintain their active status over the long term. The areas protected must be assessed accurately.

The task force recommended that the state GIS Office continue to work with county officials and levee districts to help them draw up-to-date maps showing the boundaries of levee districts and the property that is protected by levees.

If it makes sense to merge two or more levee districts, that decision should be made at the local level, the task force recommended.

All levee districts should use a standard form when they monitor and report on the condition of levees.

In related development, the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission approved $8.8 million in grants for 14 local districts.

The task force report cautioned that even after levees are repaired and meet federal standards, they might be breached by historic levels of flooding. The 2019 floods in Arkansas were the result of heavy rains in Oklahoma and southeast Kansas that were 400 to 600 % higher than normal. Runoff from those storms was estimated to be four times the capacity of Oklahoma reservoirs.


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