Levee task force: State grants should incentivize improvements

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 377 views 

View of the Interstate 540 bridge during the historic May 2019 flooding with the former Lighthouse Restaurant in the foreground. (photo courtesy of Austin Collins Freelance Photography)

The Arkansas Levee Task Force formally presented its report to Gov. Asa Hutchinson Tuesday (Jan. 7) with 17 recommendations, including tying state grants to participation by local levee districts in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Rehabilitation and Inspection Program.

Future legislative actions will be determined over the next year before the next General Assembly meets in 2021, Hutchinson said in a press conference.

“My initial conclusions from the report are first of all that the report is thorough, it is thoughtful, and we need to pay attention to the recommendations,” he said.

The 26-person task force was created by the governor’s executive order June 27, 2019, after last year’s historic flooding of the Arkansas River. The flooding occurred after rains 400-600 percent above normal in northeast Oklahoma and southeast Kansas overtook the capacity of Oklahoma reservoirs to store the water.

Jami Cook, secretary of the Department of Public Safety, chaired the task force.

The task force recommended that whatever assistance is provided by the state should incentivize districts to participate in the Corps’ Rehabilitation and Inspection Program and to maintain active status. The federal government provides up to 100% assistance for qualifying restorations for federal-built structures and up to 80% for qualifying levees built locally. Hutchinson said the incentive program could ensure that levees are maintained at required Corps levels.

Hutchinson pointed to several other recommendations, including one that levee districts that are dependent upon each other should consider consolidating, though the decision should be made at the local level.

The task force also recommended that a full inventory be done of the state’s river systems that have levees. Such an inventory has been completed of the Arkansas River.

It also recommended that levee districts submit a standardized report to the state that should include the approval of emergency managers and county judges. Hutchinson said such approval would make those officials aware of the issues so they would correct them.

Hutchinson said needed legislation would be proposed during the 2021 regular session. He said money in existing programs could be moved to levees before then.

Cook said the task force looked at minor changes like reporting dates, but decided to monitor developments and then decide what legislative changes should be made in 2021.

Following the flooding, Hutchinson with the General Assembly’s approval provided $10 million for immediate repairs. Those grants will be awarded at a meeting of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission Jan. 16. ANRC Executive Director Bruce Holland said many districts have applied for those grants. He said he thought the most prominent levee failure in Dardanelle would need $1.7 million for repairs, but that amount could be lessened by other work being done on the levee.

Hutchinson recalled the phone call he received last year from the Tulsa district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informing him that a record amount of water would be released. With the sun shining outside, Hutchinson was told the state should prepare for a mandatory evacuation of some areas.

He gave the task force four assignments: analyze the levees’ current condition; identify funding needs and sources; review levee districts’ monitoring and reporting systems; and review the adequacy of current laws.