The Washington Times-Herald

February 13, 2014

Levee problems abound in southern Indiana

By Mike Grant Times Herald
The Washington Times-Herald

---- — Ever since the Bennington Levee failed, Daviess County officials have had issues ranging from funding the repairs to certification and approvals from federal agencies. It appears they are not alone. Daviess County Council members recently attended a meeting for several counties put on by the Indiana Farm Bureau and learned that levees are producing all kinds of issues in the southern part of the state.

"I was surprised by the turnout," said County Council President Jo Arthur. "It seems like all of these counties with levees are having problems, but all of them seem to be different."

One of those issues goes back to dealing with all of the federal agencies that have jurisdiction over levees. "That is an ongoing problem," said Councilman Mike Sprinkle.

"EPA will require one thing on a levee project and it will be in direct contradiction to what another agency like NCRS. or the Corps of Engineers requires. It makes me think we might have more problems in getting the Bennington Levee certified."

"I don't think the Corps will ever re-certify that levee," said Councilman Kenneth Soliday. "Once they drop the certification it is almost impossible to get it back. They will just keep coming up with more and more things to be done."

County council members say they believe that now that the levee has been repaired from its break a couple of years ago, that it is in good shape, but they want to make certain the county has a say in its future operation and maintenance. "That levee has been out there for years and the only say the county has ever had in it has been writing the check to pay for the repairs," said Soliday.

The Indiana legislature is working on a bill that could change that in the future. That bill would require levee boards to include members of the county commissioners and council. The bill has already passed the House and is pending in committee in the Senate.

"If that passes that will change things this summer," said County Attorney Grant Swartzentruber. "I think Indiana's counties are done with serving as the ATM for fixing all of the bad levees in the state."

The Farm Bureau meeting on levees also provided the council with some additional ideas on things that could be done to better finance levee repairs in the future. "The assessments on the Bennington Levee are based on construction costs that date back to the 1940s," said Sprinkle. "The funding formula in the law really doesn't provide enough money. The Levee Board has really done a decent job given the amount of money they have to work with."

The council also learned of ways that more money might be generated for levee work in the future. "In Knox County they have converted to a conservancy instead of a levee board," said Councilman Mike Sprinkle. "They have found that by doing that when they have a problem they can generate more money."

"The decision on whether to make that change rests with the levee board," added Swartzentruber. "It appears it might be more expensive for the land owners to begin with."

County officials say they believe that levees will always be an issue for local government. "The City of Washington has its water well-field right below the levee," said Sprinkle. "That means someone has to be responsible to make certain it is protected. There are reasons beyond agriculture to maintain this levee."

"It looks like there is some work underway to try and resolve some of these issues," added Arthur. "I think counties just want a more direct connection to the information. Hopefully, we can get more representation on the levee boards."