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Missouri River levees meet only minimum standard

Historic flooding along the Missouri River continues to impact the state.

Just this week, Gov. Mike Parson asked President Donald Trump to approve a major disaster declaration for 13 northwest Missouri counties affected by flooding so far.

According to the Missouri Levee District and Drainage Association, 18 levees have breached or overtopped as high water levels made their way down the Missouri River.

ABC 17 News Investigates found a majority of the levees along the Missouri River could be at risk of not performing how they should or how they were designed.

The Show Me State is home to 319 levees. In mid-Missouri 33 of them border the Missouri River.

Sixteen levees in mid-Missouri had reports avaliable to view in the national levee database. Most levee inspections in mid-Missouri came back with a “minimally acceptable” rating. Inspection ratings ranged from acceptable, minimally acceptable to unacceptable. Minimally acceptable means there are some deficiences that may impact the way it was designed and has performed. Nine levees had minimally acceptable ratings, six had acceptable and one had no rating. The reports had inspection dates that ranged from 2012 to 2018.

Lowell Blankers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the Corps performs two inspections. One inspection is done every year to record deficiences in the levee and provide the sponsors a report of where those deficiences are located and what they are. Additionally, every five to 10 years the Corps will do a more detailed inspection walking along the levee and reinspecting it to find any deficiencies.

LINK: Missouri levees in National Levee Database

Despite the number of inspections, Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee District Association, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see levee systems continue to fail.

“The levees have performed as designed. They’re only designed to protect to a certain level and when the river exceeds that level they’re going to get overtopped and breach.” Waters said. “Even though we know they’ve been overtopped and recent history the last five to 10 years shows they continue to get overopped, we continue to put them back at the level they were pre-flood. We’re not allowed to increase that level of protection.”

Waters expressed that not only are regulations behind but changes to the river have “hurt the river.”

“What we’ve done over the last 15 to 20 years is the corps has been pushed by the Fish and Wildlife Service to cut notches in those dikes to open up old chutes along the river which will allow the river to flow out of the channel,” Waters said.

He also claims levee district owners are only allowed to build their levees to a certain height, and have to follow federal regulations that date back to 1986.

In a statement, FEMA said “Although FEMA has no authority to design, construct or maintain levee systems, FEMA does have a responsibility to identify Special Flood Hazard Areas, the area subject to inundation by the 1-percent-annual chance (base) flood on Flood Insurance Rate Maps.”

According to FEMA, a study done in the early 1980s by the National Academies of Sciences looked at the best way for FEMA to account for levees on the insurance maps. This resulted in the promulgation of regulations in 1986 and those regulations remain in place today.

A spokesperson with FEMA also said in the statement that as “the state of engineering practice has evolved, FEMA has continued to explore the best way to improve the nation’s understanding of flood risk.”

There is no one entity responsible for levee construction and maintenance. All levee districts, Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA work together.

In recent months, Parson has put the Army Corps in the hotseat for the way they’ve handled the Missouri River. In a statement, the Corps said:

“The reservoir system is designed to capture spring and summer runoff to provide flood risk reduction, and then allows the Corps to manage releases throughout the year to accommodate the other 7 authorized purposes: navigation, irrigation, water supply, hydropower, fish and wildlife, recreation, and water quality.The system is a runoff driven system and our operational priority is driven by runoff conditions. Since March 2018 we have been operating for flood control as the runoff driven purpose. “

The statement went on to say “The bottom line is , there was nothing that the Corps could do to prevent this flooding.”

The National Weather Service told ABC 17 News they continue to update emergency managers across the state with the newest flooding outlook.

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