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Published July 07, 2009, 12:00 AM

Forum editorial: Not all levees are equal

Not all flood levees are equal, but some designated “temporary” by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers certainly could be made permanent.

By: Forum Editorial Board, INFORUM

Not all flood levees are equal, but some designated “temporary” by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers certainly could be made permanent.

Several cities that fought record floods a few months ago owe their survival in part to the temporary levees the corps erected in record time. Those structures made the difference in Fargo, Valley City, Lisbon, Jamestown and other places. As the waters receded, leaders in several cities expressed a desire to either leave some levees in place or make them permanent.

The corps seems reluctant. Indeed, in some cities levees have already been removed, to the private consternation of local officials. Removal of some levees was necessary because they were built across neighborhood streets and yards. The clay structures could not remain. But in other locations the temporary levees are (were) not intrusive and did not block thoroughfares. In those specific instances, the levees could have been preserved or made permanent.

No agency on earth knows how to build dikes and levees better than the corps. But when it comes to flexibility that is sometimes necessary to accommodate local needs, the corps is not the best. Moreover, the corps, in concert with other federal agencies, often holds the purse strings for long-term flood protection, so city leaders are reluctant to challenge the corps’ directives.

Nonetheless, “temporary” levees that worked well – and were built in locations that likely will experience flood threats again – should not be torn down simply because it’s the corps policy to remove them. The corps has an obligation to listen to local officials and to cooperate where feasible. By virtue of their experience, local leaders know more about their cities than corps officials.

Removal rules are not locked in stone. For example, Fargo and Valley City left a few levees in place after the 1997 flood. Corps officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency apparently are taking a similar approach this year. But FEMA rules regarding flood works removal suggest the agency might not pay for upgrades to temporary dikes, making it almost impossible for a city to resist the agency’s tendency to favor removal. The deck seems stacked against cities.

It must be stressed that not all levees are equal. Some should be removed. They are not structurally sound enough to protect against flooding year after year. Others, however, can be upgraded if federal agencies listen to legitimate local concerns. The conversation is ongoing, but it seems one-sided.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.