News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 10, 2013

Four Vigo County levees classified as minimally acceptable

Howard Greninger
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Four levees in Vigo County overseen by the federal government have been classified as minimally acceptable, with deficiencies that need correcting.

The classifications are part of a first-ever inventory of flood-control systems overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The condition of flood-control systems came to the forefront in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, when a storm surge toppled levees in New Orleans.

After that, Congress ordered the Corps to catalog federally overseen levees, many of which were built and then handed over to municipalities or local levee associations.

There are 2,487 levees overseen by the Corps, protecting about 10 million people. The Corps stated 326 levees covering more than 2,000 miles were found in urgent need of repair, according to an Associated Press analysis.

As of Jan. 10, the Corps had rated 1,451 levees, or 58 percent of the levees, according to the Associated Press. Of those, 326 were unacceptable, 1,004 were minimally acceptable with deficiencies needing correcting, and 121 were acceptable, AP reports

Dyke & Ditch determination

All of the levees for which the Corps has oversight in Vigo County are along the Wabash River.

Most of these levees have been impacted from a new Corps requirement of a 15-foot buffer between the toe, or base, of the levee outward on each side, said David Voges, president of the Honey Creek Dyke and Ditch Co.

The Corps requires that slopes be kept clear of plants, especially trees, which attract burrowing animals such as gophers and ground squirrels. Also, large roots from trees can create tunnels for water after the tree dies, weakening levee slopes.

Voges said the Corps cited another deficiency because the levee had not been mowed properly. Voges said there had been a conflict with its contracted mower, who was to have mowed the levee in August, ahead of the Corps’ December inspection. Thick vegetation can conceal cracks, holes and unstable slopes.

The Honey Creek Dyke and Ditch Co. oversees about 6.1 miles of levee along the Wabash River. It was first constructed in the late 1800s, later re-routing Honey Creek in the early 1900s, and then raised to its existing height in the 1930s, said Voges, chairman of the Dyke and Ditch Co.

The levee was built to hold back water at the level of a March 27, 1913, flood — the worst flood in the county’s history.

The levee protects about 1,600 acres of farmland. Of that, about 200 acres is owned by Voges inside the river bottom land.

“We are a very small growing area. It is really tough to generate the funds to make repairs. We are a self-taxing entity. Nobody in the county pays a penny toward anything on our levee except those of us who have land inside the levee,” said Voges, adding that eight to 10 property owners are involved in the Dyke and Ditch Co.

The taxing area was diminished, Voges said, when land not protected by the levee was removed at the request of landowners.

Landowners pay about $15,000 annually to maintain the levee, which has been breached in the past, such as in 1985 and more recently and more severely in 2005, the same year Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. “We had Corps funds coming to us that year, but they got diverted because of Katrina, so we had to pay for a repair ourselves,” Voges said.

Voges lives on Kennett Drive in Prairieton on a farm his relatives bought on Sept. 11, 1816, months before Indiana became the 19th state on Dec. 12, 1816. “We had our 196th birthday [of the farm] this past year,” Voges said. “I am fifth generation, so we stay around pretty close.”

Voges said he thinks one new problem for the levee is more and faster flowing water as a result of a built-up Thompson Ditch. “Forty-plus percent of the water from a rain event coming down the creek is coming from Thompson Ditch, and our levee is only designed to handle Honey Creek,” he said.

“We strive to keep our levee in shape. We have until November 2014 to get it all back to totally acceptable. That will be a tough chore,” Voges said. “We can’t hire anyone; we don’t have the money. And this past year, if you didn’t have crop insurance, you go zero, zip,” he said, which lowers the amount collected for the levee’s maintenance.

The levee needs mowing and trees removed. “The mowing is no problem, but trees will be a major problem,” he said. The tree roots also have to be removed, he said.

Another concern is Indiana bats, a protected species. Trees up to 5 inches in diameter at chest height can be cut anytime, but larger trees cannot be cut from April through October because the bats are nesting at that time.

Members of the Honey Creek Dyke and Ditch Co. will meet Monday to discuss their options on maintaining the levee to keep it up to Corps standards. Voges said the levee has always met Corps standards in the past, which allows it to receive Corps help and federal dollars for any repairs.

Voges, who turns 73 later this month, said “many members [of the levee group] are getting up in age. We can’t do the physical work that we have in the past” on the levee. Other members work two jobs, which makes it difficult to work on the levee, he said.

Voges said he wants to maintain the levee, as people in the past “worked their hearts out to clear this river bottom.”

Going their own way

Many levee sponsors or associations want to remain in good standing with the Corps. Under its rehabilitation inspection program, if the governing body or levee sponsor keeps their levee in good operating condition and the federally built levee is damaged by flooding, the Corps will step in and do all the repair work under Public Law 84-99, according to the Corps.

If a levee is non-federally constructed, but is inspected and maintained at Corps specifications, the repair costs are split 80 percent/20 percent, with the federal government paying the majority. All four Vigo County levees are in the Corps inspection program, while two of the four levees — one sponsored by Terre Haute and the second by the West Vigo Levee Association — were constructed by the Corps.

The Blocksom & Jenckes Levee is just more than 3.5 miles in length, protecting about 1,100 acres of farm ground. Randy Welsh, who owns 80 acres of that, is the tenant farmer for the protected land, located off U.S. 41 North and extending west to Otter Creek. He is also president of the Blocksom & Jenckes Levee Association.

Welsh said the new clearance standard from the toe of the levee also put the Blocksom & Jenckes levee into the minimally acceptable category. To clear out trees on both sides of the levee would cost an estimated $200,000, he said.

Welsh said he told a Corps inspector after the December inspection that “it is not economically feasible” to remain in the Corps’ program. “We would have a terrible lot of expense,” he said, “especially the way the Corps would want it done.

“We will have the levee. What it means is we will not be eligible for any federal aid for the levee. We really don’t get any aid, just every once in a while we might get a little bit,” Welsh said. “A levee like ours, which only protects farm ground, is on the bottom of the [federal aid] totem pole because it is not protecting any housing.

“What will happen, in about another year, we will not be eligible for any federal funding,” Welsh said.

Seven property owners benefit from the levee, he said. “We generally don’t assess anything. We just assess according to [landowners’] percentage when we need something,” he said.

“The Corps sounds pretty good when they pay 80 percent and you pay 20 percent, but when the Corps gets involved, you have to go by their standards and it escalates the price by about four to five times,” Welsh said. “We are better off doing things ourselves.”

Half-mile levee under city purview

In 1964, the Corps built a levee about 0.45 miles in length, located where U.S. 41 and Indiana 63 split on Terre Haute’s north side. The Indiana Department of Transportation owns the land and the levee.

However, the city of Terre Haute is the sponsor of the levee, responsible for its maintenance.

City officials were notified last year of its minimal acceptance rating, said City Engineer Chuck Ennis. Since that time, the city has removed all trees and vegetation from the land side, or south side, of the levee.

“We have cleaned out a pipe, a conduit to drain the land side,” Ennis said. Then a motorized camera was run through the pipe that determined it is in good shape, he said. Two gates were repaired, one with a flap and another with a sluice gate, which is manually slid open or closed.

“The last thing to be done this year is to clear vegetation off the north, or river side of the levee,” Ennis said. “Hopefully, when that is done, we will get a better rating on the levee,” he said.

Ennis said INDOT is to work with the city for traffic control when contractors work to clear the river side of trees and brush later this year. The city has already spent $20,000 clearing the south side of the levee, Ennis said.

The clearing is important because if trees are allowed to grow near the levee, roots can burrow and weaken the integrity of the levee, Ennis said. The levee is important, Ennis said, as it prevents flooding to Ouabache Elementary School as well as an area up to Eighth Avenue and to Sixth Street, protecting medical office buildings, part of Union Hospital and Hamilton Center.

“Most people don’t realize there is a levee there, but it is very wide and not prone to failure. It has a two-lane highway and slopes down from there. It is a very secure levee,” Ennis said.

Grant helping to fund levee upgrade

The West Vigo Levee Association maintains a 2.85-mile levee around the town of West Terre Haute. The levee, constructed by the Corps in 1977, has fallen into the minimally acceptable category following the most recent inspection by the Corps. Officials now hope engineering suggestions will change that rating.

While the Corps was starting its first-ever inventory of flood-control systems, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began to update flood maps and designated flood zone areas nationwide.

West Terre Haute and levee association officials were notified in 2007 that they had two years to provide FEMA with levee accreditation documentation. A report was due in 2008, but no report was filed. The final accreditation was due in November 2009, but also was not filed.

A lack of FEMA accreditation would cause about 787 parcels in West Terre Haute to be classified as a high insurance risk, and flood insurance would be required of any homeowner with a mortgage.

Officials then worked to obtain a federal grant to help the town regain its FEMA accreditation. In 2011, Kentucky-based Cole Engineering Solutions was hired as part of a $462,890 grant to West Terre Haute. The grant had a match of $22,500 paid by the town and the levee association, for a total of $485,390, said Terry Jones, economic development planner for West Central Indiana Economic Development District.

Jones said a three-phase approach has been undertaken. The first phase was to collect data and documentation, including original construction documents, along with core samples along the levee. The next phase includes more soil borings as well as sound wave studies of the levee. The third phase is repair work.

“The project is nearing completion of the Phase II of the study, which will determine what, if any, type of improvements or repairs would need to be completed for the levee to maintain its designated certification with FEMA for insurance purposes,” Jones said.

So far, $382,813 has been spent on the project.

The study’s goal is to show FEMA the levee is still protecting the town at a 100-year flood scenario, Jones said. Suggested improvements, which are being coordinated with the Corps, would bring the levee into an acceptable rating for the Corps, he said.

Some engineering suggestions include filling in a large depression area on the southeast side of the levee and having “toe drains,” designed to move high water into a rock/pea gravel channel under the levee to prevent a blow-out, Jones said. The ends of the drains, however, are plugged with clay. “It’s not along the whole levee, just in certain areas. The drains look to be capped by one to three feet of clay material,” Jones said.

“That will be the big thing that will have to be done,” he said.

Also, about 1,000 feet of a berm area will need to be built up an additional six inches in height near the end of the levee on the west side, Jones said.

“We are looking at ways now that maybe some of this work can be done locally to save money,” Jones said. “It will all depend on the Army Corps.”

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or howard.greninger@