FONT & AUDIO
State levee funding dries up
The agency tasked with keeping the Columbia River in its lane needs a new flow of cash.
Levee Ready Columbia — the umbrella organization seeking to re-certify an aging system of earthen barriers along the Columbia River — is facing a budget crunch because state lawmakers didn't pay their share.
The missing funding, roughly $267,000, is just a drop in the bucket compared with the $5.3 billion transportation package passed by elected officials earlier this year.
Taking a chunk out of Levee Ready's two-year budget of $3.2 million will affect the organization's ability to keep the levees accredited by the federal government. As long as the levees remain federally guaranteed for reliability, property owners can buy the flood insurance required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Without that insurance, mortgages and other forms of credit would immediately dry up.
"I'm not a mind reader, so I'm not sure why (lawmakers) didn't include that in their budget," noted Fairview City Manager Nolan Young, who sits on Levee Ready's steering committee.
"The importance of having levees checked regularly is to ensure they don't fail," he continued.
Motorists zipping along Marine Drive may not realize it, but the roadway sits on a manmade earthen wall designed to keep low-lying areas dry during even a 100-year flood.
First constructed in 1917, the 27-mile-long levee system is currently under scrutiny from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which could revoke or recertify the flood walls as safe. Other accreditation projects nationwide have cost as much as $10 million a mile.
"There's undeveloped land that would not be able to be developed without the floodplain protection," added Young.
For its part, Levee Ready Columbia assures The Outlook it isn't planning to turn off the lights anytime soon.
The agency gets funding from four cities, five drainage districts, the Port of Portland and several other jurisdictions, including the state government. The missing money would have been allocated to Levee Ready by Regional Solutions, a state program funded by the Capitol.
Levee Ready has another chance to scrape together the cash during state lawmakers' 32-day "short session" in 2018. If not, the group may be in trouble during the second half of their two-year budget cycle.
"We think we can be flexible in the first (fiscal) year, and we may need to make some adjustments in the second year if the state funding doesn't come through," reports Joel Schoening, community affairs manager for the intergovernmental organization.
More than 48,000 jobs and $7.3 billion in property is located on the Oregon side of the lower Columbia River floodplain, according to a fact sheet prepared by Levee Ready in August.
The floodplain stretches from the Portland Expo Center in North Portland to the Troutdale-Reynolds Industrial Park on the Sandy River, and encompasses three interstates, two freight lines, two MAX light-rail routes and two airports.
As The Outlook previously reported, 253 soil samples were drilled in levees along the Columbia and Sandy rivers in February. Levee Ready expects to receive results from the lab in October.
"They basically look at the soil and its compaction, and what kind of material it's made up of," Schoening said. "Using that information, they can model how the soil will function when it's loaded with water pressure."
News of the Levee Ready funding crunch was first reported by the Willamette Week newspaper in Portland.