Governor creates levee task force, asks lawmakers for $10 million as a ‘start’

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 316 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is appointing a task force to make recommendations regarding the state’s levees and is requesting legislative approval for $10 million for immediate repairs after the recent historic Arkansas River flooding.

The Arkansas Levee Task Force will study the state’s levee system, current and future funding sources, prospective monitoring and reporting systems, and current laws and organizational structures. It will make its recommendations by Dec. 31.

In a news conference announcing the task force’s creation Thursday, June 27, Hutchinson noted that the state’s levees have not been adequately maintained. Many were built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the first half of the 20th century and then turned over to local boards that eventually became inactive.

Any levee that does not meet Corps of Engineers standards is not eligible for federal funds for repairs. Costs will fall on Arkansas and local communities, Hutchinson said.

“We have a lot of work ahead,” he said. “One, to learn from what we’ve experienced in the last few weeks in our levee system, how we can improve the system in the future, and to make sure that we’re better prepared for the floods that we know will come periodically in the state of Arkansas.”

Hutchinson estimated that the recent flooding caused at least $100 million in damage. He said the water is still receding.

“So those measurements have not come in,” he said. “Without any doubt, you’re looking at well over $100 million in repair costs that will be necessary in terms of public infrastructure and private losses.”

He said the federal government will cover much of the costs of public infrastructure repair as a result of a presidential disaster declaration. The state also has disaster mitigation funds available.

The levees’ deteriorating conditions and lack of oversight were not a surprise. After his own property was flooded, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, sponsored legislation in 2016 requiring county clerks to report to the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission regarding their counties’ levees, their state of repair and their organizational structure. The legislation authorized county judges to reappoint members to defunct levee boards.

Hutchinson said the state has 93 levees, and fewer than 20 made reports as required by the law. Some did not report because they are not overseen.

“And so that is one of the challenges that we face,” he said. “We have levees that are needed, but there’s not an organizational structure that will provide maintenance, the inspections that are needed to keep them up to standards, and to levy any assessments that are needed to provide the funding for the maintenance of those levees.”

Hutchinson said he will seek legislative approval for $10 million for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management for immediate repair and maintenance. ADEM will coordinate with the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission. Hutchinson said the $10 million will be a “start” and is available in a reserve fund. He said the money can be transferred to ADEM now, but he is seeking legislative approval so he will have the Legislature’s support and also to develop rules for spending it.

“In terms of whether additional funds will be needed down the road, that obviously will depend upon some of the recommendations from the Levee Task Force, but clearly $10 million will be utilized very quickly in the repair of a couple of levees that became somewhat famous because of their television and media coverage,” he said.

Those levees were the Holla Bend Levee in Yell County, which breached, and the Lollie Levee in Faulkner County, which held after developing a huge gash.

Hutchinson said the task force will have about 20 members. The chair is Jami Cook, secretary of the Department of Public Safety. It will include the following or their designees:

– Arkansas Land Commissioner Tommy Land
– Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward
– Secretary of Finance and Administration Larry Walther
– Arkansas Natural Resources Commission Director Bruce Holland
– Arkansas Department of Emergency Management Director A.J. Gary
– Arkansas Waterways Commission Director Deidre Smith
– Geographic Information Office Director Shelby Johnson

In addition, the task force will include a county judge, county clerk and municipal league elected official. The governor can also appoint other Arkansas citizens under the order. Hutchinson said he would ask the Senate president pro tempore and speaker of the House to designate two senators and two representatives.

The task force will be staffed by ADEM and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.

Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray applauded the governor’s actions Thursday but said the situation was caused by state government tax breaks that reduced infrastructure funding.

“It’s sad that it takes so many Arkansans facing a catastrophe like this to make those same leaders realize that infrastructure should be a priority,” he said in a statement released by the party. “We need to ensure that this is a true, long-term commitment to protect levees for people living in every corner of our state.”