Update: Governor Announces Levee Task Force, $10M Request For Repairs

Update: Governor Announces Levee Task Force, $10M Request For Repairs
The Arkansas River swells over into Little Rock's Riverfront Park on June 2. (Lance Turner)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order Thursday to create the Arkansas Levee Task Force, which will study and analyze the current conditions of the state’s levees, following record flooding along the Arkansas River earlier this month.

Several levees were impacted during the flooding, including one in Yell County that was breached. 

The governor also said he will be requesting legislative approval for $10 million for immediate levee repairs. The money would come from the state's reserve allocation fund that can be transferred to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission will be involved as well.

Federal disaster relief assistance is also available for repairs, to homeowners and to businesses, Hutchinson noted.

Members of the new task force will:

  • Identify sources and requirements for funding the construction, repair and maintenance of the levees; 

  • Study prospective monitoring and reporting systems for maintenance of the levees; and

  • Review adequacy of current laws and organizational structure of the levee system and levee district boards.

The task force is expected to provide a report of its findings and make recommendations to the governor by Dec. 31. It may provide additional reports and recommendations as necessary.

"I'll never forget the image that I had as I was in a helicopter traveling from Little Rock to Fort Smith along the Arkansas River and seeing the massive flooding, but also seeing the importance of the levee system in our state and how, in so many instances, it was the wall, literally, that was preventing the flooding of farmland, homes, other property and businesses," Hutchinson said Thursday.

Hutchinson added that repair costs of breached levees not maintained to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers standards are the responsibility of the state. 

The following state officials have been named as members of the Arkansas Levee Task Force:

  • Jami Cook (Chair), Department of Public Safety secretary;

  • Tommy Land, Arkansas land commissioner;

  • Wes Ward, Department of Agriculture secretary; 

  • Larry Walther, Department of Finance and Administration secretary;

  • Bruce Holland, director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission;

  • A.J. Gary, director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management;

  • Deidre Smith, director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission; and

  • Shelby Johnson, director of the Geographic Information Office.

The task force will later include at least one county judge, one county clerk and one municipal elected official. Citizens, including legislators, with knowledge of the engineering, construction, funding or oversight of levees, and citizens representing flood-impacted areas, could also be added to the task force as the governor deems necessary. 

Hutchinson added at the announcement that he would be asking the St. Francis Levee District, "a model across the nation," to participate in the task force.

The governor and state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Maynard, also spoke Thursday about legislation passed two years ago that requires reporting on the condition of levees and the organizational structure related to their operation.

Arkansas has an estimated 93 levees, and fewer than 20 met the new reporting requirements, Hutchinson said. "That's not a good response," he said. "Now, why did that happen? Of the 93 levees, some do not have organizational boards. They do not have leadership. They're not in operation anymore. ... So that is one of the challenges we face."

Rapert said "absolutely nobody" claimed responsibility for a levee in his district when flooding threatened property there in 2015 and 2016 and people lost access to roads. The 2017 law, which he sponsored, allows county judges to reappoint members to defunct levee boards.

That step is needed for districts to qualify for 80% federal funding to repair breached levees, Rapert added.