New levee database lists inspection ratings, other details

The National Levee Database, unveiled to the public on Thursday, includes detailed information on more than 14,000 miles of federal levees.
October 27, 2011

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a new database Thursday that officials expect will become a crucial tool for allocating funding and assessing safety of the nation’s levees.

The National Levee Database contains an inventory with details on more than 14,000 miles of federal levee systems across the country.

Citizens can search for levees in their area and view inspection ratings, among other information.

“It’s important information for them to make an informed decision on measures their family should be taking on a major flood coming to their community,” said Sam Riley Medlock, policy and partnerships manager for the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

The National Committee on Levee Safety recommended the creation of the database in a 2009 report to Congress.

Inspection ratings are not currently included for most systems. On Thursday, Governing reviewed 744 ratings listed online and found:

  • The vast majority, 585, were rated “minimally acceptable.” This indicates a levee had a minor deficiency, which the Corps said would not seriously impair a levee’s performance.
  • Another 86 ratings were considered “unacceptable,” meaning corresponding levees were not expected to provide reliable flood protection.
  • A total of 73 systems scored “acceptable” ratings, meaning the levee was in satisfactory condition and expected to function as intended.

Many levees with “unacceptable” ratings were constructed decades ago, with a few dating back to the 1940s. Riley Medlock said levees deteriorate over time, requiring regular inspection.

Levees the Corps maintains are scrutinized with annual inspections and a more-comprehensive examination once every five years that includes inspecting a levee’s interior.

Corps spokesman Pete Pierce said officials will soon upload additional ratings and summaries of inspection reports.

The data could play a key role in prioritizing infrastructure funding.

Flood safety advocates also hope the database serves as a tool for public officials. Riley Medlock, a member of the levee safety committee, said local administrators should utilize the data in decision-making.

Janet Bly, general manger of the Miami Conservancy District in Dayton, Ohio, said she planned to compare levees in her area to similar structures listed in the database.

The 55 miles of levees in the Miami Conservancy District will also be added to the national database. Bly said local officials can use the data in making public policy and public safety decisions.

“I think our infrastructure all over the nation needs to be accounted for,” she said.

The new database is far from complete, though.

Riley Medlock said it lacks an estimated 100,000 miles of levees not administered by the Corps. Other federal agencies, states, local governments and private groups manage these systems.

The Corps intends to expand the database with records from other levee systems. Authorities classify levees differently and use varying inspection methods. This could prove challenging in adding data to the system.

“The goal is that this would make things more uniform, but right now it’s not,” Bly said.

Pierce said the Corps was working with California and other state and local governments to build the database.

“It’s going to come down to a shared responsibility between state and local governments and the federal government,” Riley Medlock said.

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