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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Locally Operated Levees: Issues and Federal Programs

Natalie Keegan, Coordinator
Analyst in American Federalism and Emergency Management Policy

Rawle O. King
Specialist in Financial Economics and Risk Assessment

Nicole T. Carter
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Megan Stubbs
Analyst in Agricultural Conservation and Natural Resources Policy

Locally operated levees and the federal programs that assist and accredit them are receiving increasing congressional attention. Congressional authorization of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), expires on September 30, 2011. The pending reauthorization has increased congressional awareness of the link between the condition of locally operated levees, FEMA’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) and levee accreditation (which determine which NFIP requirements and premiums apply in an area), and programs providing federal disaster assistance for these levees. Congress is considering whether and how to change current programs, federal funding, and the existing division of levee responsibilities. Options are complicated by the desire to promote state, local, and individual decisions and investments that reduce flood risk; concerns about the local costs associated with NFIP purchase and levee accreditation requirements; and consideration of whether to expand federal responsibilities and potential liability. Even though similar issues also exist for some of the federally operated levees, this report focuses on locally operated levees since these dominate the national levee portfolio.

Approximately 22% of U.S. counties across the country, representing almost half of the U.S. population, contain levees. Economic damage from floods in leveed areas ranges between $5 billion and $10 billion annually. Levees play an important role in protecting property against flood damage. More than 100,000 miles of levees may exist, with the federal government operating roughly 2,100 miles. One estimate puts the five-year level of investment needed for new construction or maintenance of the nation’s levees at $50 billion.

FEMA is updating FIRMs and deciding whether to accredit levees which will determine whether they appear on those maps. There is some debate regarding the extent to which FEMA should assist with levees investment through its hazard mitigation programs. FEMA often cites overlap with activities of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture as justification for not funding levee activities.

The Corps is the main federal partner for construction of locally operated levees. Pursuant to congressional authorizations, the Corps participates in cost-shared planning and construction of levees. No general federal authorities exist for the Corps to assist with the regular operation and maintenance of locally operated levees; that is, local levee owners are responsible for operation, maintenance, and improvement. However, there are multiple authorities enacted by Congress for flood fighting, flood mitigation, and levee repair of damages caused by natural events. Since 2005, the Corps has had limited involvement in the data collected and certified to inform FEMA accreditation of locally operated levees. The Corps has limited authority to assist local levee owners in obtaining NFIP levee accreditation. Policymakers in recent years have considered whether to expand the Corps’ role in NFIP data certification and post-construction improvements for locally operated levees. NRCS has limited authority to assist in the construction of smaller levees and to repair small, mostly rural levees damaged by a natural event.

Congressional options for assisting with levees include, but are not limited to, maintaining the status quo, adopting the recommendations of the National Committee on Levee Safety (such as federal support to develop new state levee safety programs), modifying federal programs, or creating new federal programs.

Date of Report: April 5, 2011
Number of Pages: 34
Order Number: R41752
Price: $29.95

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