Army Corps of Engineers: Backwater levees must be raised or face de-certification

Mississippi River floodwaters surrounded farmland near Yazoo City in the spring of 2011.

The Mississippi Delta may finally be drying out after an historic flood inundated 200 square miles of the region last spring. But the flood left behind a giant-sized worry for the region — the prospect of de-certification of the Yazoo Backwater Levee.

Federal officials say the recent flooding showed the 27-mile long flood protection berm must be raised more than a foot-and-a-half to provide its intended protection.

The levee must have three to five feet of “free board,” according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This is the water-free mark from the highest level of a 100-year-flood to the top of the levee. The spring flood led to a recalculation of the 100-year flood mark and the beginning of the de-certification fears.

Chip Morgan, executive VP of the Delta Council, the region’s economic development entity, said Delta landowners and business people worry that de-certification would bring development in the Delta to a standstill.

In the years ahead, the stretch from Yazoo City to Indianola would become a dead zone for new construction, Morgan said, by forcing all new construction to be built on land elevated by massive amounts of fill dirt. Otherwise, owners of the new construction would be forced to pay flood insurance premiums well beyond their reach, he said.

In short, the levee that serves as a tributary backup to the main levees on the Mississippi River must be raised slightly more than 1.5 feet, according to Ken Parrish, Army Corps of Engineers’ senior project manager for the mainline Mississippi River levee.

Parrish conceded the Corps is unsure where the money would come from to build up the levee in time to avoid a de-certification that would cause flood insurance premiums for private property to skyrocket.

“The height of the levee is something we’re still working with headquarters on,” the Vicksburg-based flood engineer said.

Any work on the backwater levee must wait until work is completed to bring the mainline levee up to certification standards, Parrish said.

A contract for the remaining work on the mainline levee is expected to be awarded this fall. The work involves seepage repairs to the levee from Bolivar County south to near Vicksburg, according to Parrish.

The Corps must recommend to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, whether to re-certify the mainline levee. FEMA must then decide whether to “accredit” the levee. Without accreditation, FEMA flood maps would show the region as a bigger flood risk than it now is.

Parrish said the Corps is trying to delay sending a negative recommendation to FEMA on the mainline levee. “Until we get those two other spots fixed, we’re holding up that report” to FEMA, he said.

“Why send a negative report out when we are going to have it fixed momentarily?”

No momentary fix is in the works for the backwater levee, however.

Gov. Phil Bryant has written the Corps and FEMA urging that no decision on the de-certification of the Yazoo levee occur until after repairs can be attempted.

“Gov. Bryant is saying don’t come in here and take precipitous action,” Morgan said.

The fear, he added, is that the region would be further impoverished by remapping it as further prone to flooding and setting new restrictions on land use.

Meanwhile, it could take up to 10 years to raise the levee to the new standards, according to Morgan.

FEMA may not want to wait that long before removing the accreditation of the backwater levee. However, the agency is under pressure from Congress to withhold new designations for levees throughout the country, according to Parrish.

“This de-certification issue is not just in Mississippi; it’s all around the nation… From California to Maine, we have all this new stuff and no money to fix it.”

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