Thursday, June 25, 2015

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

            LITTLE ROCK – Flooding due to recent heavy rains has focused the legislature’s attention on the need to improve oversight of the patchwork of levees throughout Arkansas.
            Two joint legislative committees - the Senate and House Committees on Insurance and Commerce and the Senate and House Committees on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development - are working on a plan to modernize how levees are maintained, inspected and financed.
            Legislative auditors have conducted a review of the state levee system, and their report highlights the need for a thorough re-organization of the state’s levee system. They couldn’t accurately determine the location and number of all the levees in Arkansas because local levee districts are not required to issue reports.
            Many levees are maintained by local boards. However, many levees are not maintained because over the years the local board has disbanded. One official who is trying to keep up with the levee system told legislators that many local levee boards are similar to residential property associations.
            Anyone who has suffered property damage caused by a flood understands the need for adequate maintenance of levees, because when they fail the damage caused by high water is much greater. 
            After the historic flooding of 1927, people in communities across the state joined forces in local levee boards, districts or associations to finance levee construction. Some were created by the legislature, many were created by local city or county ordinance and some were formed by a judge’s order from a local circuit court. Many Arkansas levees are privately owned and maintained, or were built by private landowners many years ago.
            Levee districts are operated by a board consisting of property owners within the land protected by the levees, and generally their responsibility is only to the landowners within the district. No state agency has oversight over local levee districts.
            Over time, confusion arose about which areas were governed by which levee district. Also, the property owners who constituted the membership of levee boards lost track of the legislation creating the board. 
Along many waterways, it is not clear which governing body is charged with inspecting and maintaining levees and it is not clear how much local property owners should pay in fees for levee maintenance.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will inspect levees if the local board joins a federal program. The Corps identifies where maintenance is needed, but has no power to mandate that maintenance be done.  The Corps can re-write flood zone maps to indicate areas that are prone to flooding due to inadequate levees.
The state Natural Resources Commission is the agency that coordinates the National Flood Insurance Program in Arkansas, and its staff can help local boards with floodplain management.  However, the commission has no oversight authority over levee districts.
Cities and counties have no control over levee districts, but they can restrict construction in areas that are at high risk of flooding due to inadequately maintained levees. 
A potential problem is that municipal or county planning officials may not be aware that local levees are inadequately maintained or need repairs. As a result they may unknowingly allow construction within an area that is at risk of floods.

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