Portland Tribune: My View – Assessing the levees before the next flood

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My View: Assessing the levees before the next flood

Opinion Editorial by Jules Bailey, published in the Portland Tribune on September 3, 2015

Two recent pieces in the Tribune have focused on the ongoing effort, Levee Ready Columbia, to evaluate the levee system along the lower Columbia River (July 14, “Work will continue on defective levee system” and July 30 “Defective levee system holding — for now”).

We at Levee Ready Columbia are glad to see interest in our work and would like to ensure that the public has a clear understanding of what is at stake, why the project is happening now, and what to expect in the future.

As both pieces point out, one of the levee systems we are evaluating is the same one that failed in 1948, costing lives and devastating the entire city of Vanport. In the years following, local agencies partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair the levees.

As a result of this work, and regular maintenance of the system, the levees have been recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Corps for decades and performed well in the flood events of 1956, 1964 and 1996, all of which were 1 percent annual chance floods.

Though the levees performed well in these events, Levee Ready Columbia is undertaking an assessment of the system for two reasons. First, the levees protect an area that has become a critical piece of our regional economy. The area behind the levees now is home to thousands of residents, 10 percent of the jobs in Multnomah County (nearly 20 percent of the region’s future industrial growth), $16 billion in estimated annual economic activity, Portland International Airport, an Air National Guard Base, the second-largest drinking water source in Oregon, as well as trails, regional parks, and natural areas.

Second, in response to the increasing frequency and severity of storms around the country, FEMA and the Corps have begun to strengthen levee standards and enforce certification. Our region has been asked to provide evidence that our levees meet these standards.

Levee Ready Columbia represents a partnership of more than 30 organizations, including local, regional, state and federal agencies, as well as neighborhood, environmental and business organizations collaborating to ensure that our levee systems meet these federal requirements. Most importantly, our goal is to reduce the risk of flooding and the associated harm to life, property and the environment.

In the next 18 months, Levee Ready Columbia expects to complete engineering assessments of the levees and document the economic, community and environmental assets being protected so that we may then engage the region in conversation about the appropriate level of protection for an area that has become a keystone in our community’s future.

Multnomah County sits at the confluence of two dynamic river systems. These rivers are a part of our shared history, our economy, and our culture. As such, we should expect flood preparation and management to be a regular part of our shared commitment to this place we call home. We at Levee Ready Columbia believe that a collaborative, transparent and proactive approach to inspecting the levees is the best way to ensure that our community is both aware of and prepared for the next major flood event.

Jules Bailey is a Multnomah County commissioner and convener for Levee Ready Columbia.

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