In the late spring of 2019, after days of torrential rainfall that caused some of the worst floods Arkansas had experienced in decades, Twig Satterfield learned that the Lollie Levee in Faulkner County had been badly damaged.
A swirling whirlpool of water from the nearby Arkansas River, well above flood stage, had churned away a portion of the base of the nearly 100-year-old structure. From above, it looked like Mother Nature had taken a big bite out of a piece of cake.
The 7-mile-long levee was within days, if not hours, of breaching, Satterfield, head of the local levee board that maintains the Lollie Levee, said. A wall of water was about to descend upon farmland, a nearby airport and possibly spread to Conway, located about 20 minutes away.
For the first time in decades, the 2019 floods, which caused more than $3 billion in damage in Arkansas, brought much-needed attention to the state’s levee system. Then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson allocated $10 million to repair more than a dozen levees around the Arkansas River. He appointed a task force, which, at the beginning of 2020, presented a report with 17 recommendations for improved levee oversight.
Since then, it appears that concern about levees in Arkansas has once again waned, presenting a potentially troubling scenario as climatologists predict increasing extreme weather events, including rainfall and flooding.
“I get frustrated with six-month task forces that end, there is a report, and nothing happens,” former state Sen. Jason Rapert, a member of the 2019 levee task force, told Arkansas Business. “Disasters come. People pay attention. Then everyone goes back to sleep until the next flooding event.”
The problems with the state’s levee infrastructure that became apparent after the 2019 floods remain challenges today. It’s unclear how many of the recommendations from the now-disbanded task force have been implemented.
Funding sources continue to remain a major issue for maintenance and repair.
There still is not a comprehensive map of all of the levees in the state or a clear picture of which ones may still need significant improvements.
“There are an unknown number of levees that we haven’t surveyed or even that the state may not be aware of,” said Jay Townsend, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock District. The Corps manages a federal program that provides funding for the repair of levees that meet qualifying criteria to participate.
While some defunct local levee boards have become active again, there’s no data on how many remain nonoperational nor how many submit annual reports about the infrastructure they maintain. New tax assessments of property near levees, a recommendation of the 2019 task force, have not been comprehensive. Those assessments could help levee boards collect more money for upkeep.
Oversight remains piecemeal with no one agency coordinating plans. Because of this, it’s hard to quantify what work remains.
“For most states, there is very little accountability on how well they are doing at maintaining those structures,” said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If you look at who owns and operates and is responsible for the majority of levees in the U.S., it is those types of quasi-local government districts and commissions.”
Rob Rash, a member of the 2019 levee task force and head of the St. Francis Levee District in northeast Arkansas, said he’s not sure of the status of the recommendations from the task force. “I don’t know I have a good answer for that,” he said.
“I do think that there are areas throughout the state that do need work and need help and improvements made,” Rash said. “The mixture and the combination of where the money comes from and who provides it is obviously a problem.”
In a 2021 national infrastructure study, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated there are 1,593 miles of levees that protect $53.1 billion of property in Arkansas.
Townsend, with the Corps, also said he was not sure about the progress of the 2019 recommendations and referred Arkansas Business to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, which did not respond to interview requests before deadline.
The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, part of the state’s Department of Agriculture, has provided some loans to levee districts and coordinates with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program to assist with levee certification requirements.
Otherwise, the commission has “really very little” involvement with levee management, Chris Colclasure, ANRC director, said.
“Levees do kind of fall in a no-man’s land a little bit. They are primarily a local project, and in many cases, are locally built and locally funded,” Colclasure said.
In 1992, when Satterfield became chair of the board that maintains Lollie Levee in Faulkner County, the previous board chairman handed him a checkbook for the bank account for levee maintenance.
“I asked him, ‘What kind of budget do we have here?’” Satterfield said on a recent hot morning standing on a path atop the spot where the Lollie Levee almost collapsed in 2019. “He said, ‘I don’t know. Whatever it takes.’”
The balance in that checkbook: $243.13.
“The levee districts have long been underfunded,” Satterfield said.
Maintaining levees is extremely expensive. Repairing them costs even more.
The burden of those costs falls mostly on levee boards, many of which are the caretakers of infrastructure in rural areas where tax revenues are barely enough to cover mowing grass off the huge mounds of dirt, much less thousands, even millions, of dollars in repairs or upgrades.
After initiating a new tax assessment of surrounding land and merging the Lollie Levee board with the nearby Tupelo Watershed district, about $20,000 comes in annually to manage the levee, which protects about $77.9 million of property, according to a Corps levee database.
“The last time we mowed the levee, it was $7,000,” Satterfield said. A sluice gate fix cost $60,000. The 2019 flood damage repairs totaled nearly $1.5 million.
That funding came from the Corps of Engineers Public Law 84-99 program. That program provides federal money covering nearly all repair costs for levees that are damaged by natural disasters.
But levees have to meet certain standards to participate, standards that can be costly to implement and maintain.
There are 26 levees, totaling 145 miles, that are classified as “active” in the Corps’ program. Two of those were added or regained an active status since the 2019 floods, according to the Corps. After the 2019 floods, the Corps spent about $22 million fixing levees in Arkansas alone.
The Corps could not immediately provide the number of levees that may have once qualified for the federal assistance but have fallen out of compliance and are considered inactive.
“There are lots of people who have formed levee boards who want to be part of the program,” Jonathan Palmer, civil engineer for infrastructure safety for the Corps of Engineers Little Rock District, told Arkansas Business. “It’s just getting the money to get things into compliance.”
In Jackson County, board members for the Massey Alexander Levee District are dealing with the daunting task of obtaining a FEMA certification needed to keep flood insurance rates from skyrocketing in nearby towns.
Among the requirements is raising portions of the 6.5-mile Massey Alexander Levee, which is located on the White and Black rivers.
The Massey Alexander Levee board has a budget of about $40,000 from annual tax revenues. In July, it received approval for a $103,000 loan from the state’s Natural Resources Commission to assist with the FEMA certification.
“This levee certification is costing thousands upon thousands of dollars,” Mark Ballard, one of three members of the Massey-Alexander Levee board, said. “It’s a struggle to get all of the things done to meet certain standards.”
“We have a good levee,” Ballard said. “We have maintained it and worked on it, then the rules are changed; then the rules are changed again. It was fine, and now it’s not. It’s frustrating.”
With the increasing frequency of extreme weather, experts say there must be a change in how states manage levees.
“Levees are inherently risky just to rely on as a flood protection mechanism,” Olivia Dorothy, river restoration director with American Rivers, a conservation nonprofit, said. “There was a point in time in the nation’s history where we were confident that these structures could protect us 100% of the time.”
“We now understand that that is just not true,” Dorothy said.
Levee wars have become a more common phenomenon as communities build taller structures to fend off higher floodwaters, placing downstream communities that can’t afford to increase the height of levees at more risk for severe flooding, Dorothy said.
In essence, other jurisdictions are fending off natural disasters by pushing them elsewhere.
In 2019, that elsewhere became Arkansas.
“I will never forget that call from the Tulsa District of the Corps of Engineers,” Hutchinson said during a Jan. 7, 2020, news conference where the Arkansas Levee Task Force presented its final report.
The Corps “called and informed me that in a matter of days a record amount of water would be released from Oklahoma into the Arkansas River, and that we needed mandatory evacuations, that, ‘You’ll reach flood stages you have never seen before,’” Hutchinson said.
“That will wake anyone up,” he said. “Following that, the water came.”
While there is much to do in maintaining and repairing Arkansas’ levee system, there are some bright spots.
First, 13 of 16 Arkansas River levees are now repaired using funds from the $10 million that then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson allocated to the effort. And a disbanded Perry County levee board is active again.
In addition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it’s working with all Arkansas levee districts to make uniform disaster relief plans. The Corps and the Arkansas GIS Office have also completed more mapping of levees along the Arkansas River.