Herald-Whig View

Levee heights blamed on inconsistent rules

Posted: Jan. 7, 2019 10:15 am

COURTS may have to make the final determination on whether the Sny Island Levee and Drainage District has built its levees higher than authorized.

It's hard to know the facts clearly. Sny officials say they followed rules laid out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps is not commenting directly but said in a 2017 study that about 40 percent of the 205 miles of levees between St. Louis and central Iowa are above authorized levels.

The Sny, measuring 60 miles long and protecting about 115,000 acres of farmland, is the largest of the levee districts cited.

This issue started percolating two years ago when some area levee districts on both sides of the river received letters from the corps instructing them to lower their levees in certain spots or seek a federal "408 permit" authorizing the levees to remain at their current levels.

Levee districts responded that Corps of Engineers inspectors approved and the agency itself certified many of those levees. In short, their levee heights complied at the time they were made.

That debate was going on quietly, behind the scenes, until the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, a river conservation organization based in St. Louis, sent a letter in October to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Great Rivers asked the federal agency to cut off National Flood Insurance Program coverage for property owners protected by the Sny's levees until the levee dispute gets resolved.

Whether the environmental group has any standing in this dispute is questionable.

Eventually, someone will need to determine what the levee districts were told to do and whether the Corps personnel were the ones signing off on the work.

It should be noted that the Sny District is the largest of these districts, but several others were mentioned in the Corps' 2017 study.

There may not be enough information to draw firm conclusions. However, it is puzzling that several levee districts all ended up with higher levee heights under a program that is closely monitored by the federal agency.

In the years after the record 1993 flood, river engineers came out with several different flood profiles to classify 50-year, 100-year or other levels of flood protection.

If rules were changed after levees were built to a suitable level, should the federal government grandfather in the existing structures?

A court may need to decide whether federal officials have been changing the rules or whether a number of levee districts independently bent the rules.