Questions about aging river levees in metro Albuquerque, N.M., could mean insurance premium hikes as high as $2,000 annually for thousands of property owners.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has rated the condition of the 1950s-era levees as poor, but concluded they nevertheless are “likely capable” of withstanding a serious flood of the Rio Grande.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, cautious after the disastrous New Orleans levee failures following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is considering removing the levees’ certification.
“It is very likely that in 2011 or 2012, all of the Albuquerque levees will be decertified,” said Danny Hernandez, a board member of the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority.
Officials say that would trigger a requirement that mortgage holders buy additional flood insurance.
Corps engineers found that the levees do have problems that increase the risk that they would fail in the event of a flood. Trees have grown on many of the levee banks, which can weaken them, and pipes intended to drain water to keep it from eroding levees in many cases no longer work, according to the Corps report.
The federal reviews were triggered by the Katrina failures, which also led to tougher standards for levee design, construction and maintenance.
“The levees are 50 years old and do not meet the Corps’ new standard after Katrina,” said Subhas Shah, chief engineer of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the local agency that owns and maintains most of the area’s levee system.
For flood-mapping purposes, a decertified levee is treated as if there was no levee at all, said FEMA spokeswoman Susie Webb. “On our maps, it’s like the levee doesn’t exist,” Webb said
That makes the problem more a bureaucratic and regulatory issue than a genuine danger, Hernandez said. “It’s mostly a paper flood risk.”
A relatively small area in Albuquerque’s South Valley and another in Bernalillo have already been caught up in the review. After two short levee stretches were decertified, FEMA designated them flood zones in 2008, driving up insurance costs for residents.
Now, a new mapping effort is under way that will consider whether the rest of the metro area’s levees can be certified to FEMA standards. Up for review are 27 miles of levees protecting much of the metro area’s North and South valleys.
Nearly 13,000 buildings and property worth $1.4 billion are within the area under study for possible inclusion in the flood plain, according to a Levee Task Force report.
Rebuilding those levees would cost an estimated $120 million.