Levee 101: US Army Corps details proposed flood control system

Much of what was discussed at Tuesday night’s Custer County-Miles City Regional Flood Protection Project update meeting was a review of what is already known — creating a flood protection system for Miles City will be expensive and time-consuming.

How expensive, how to pay for it, and how long it will take were the main topics.

Carl Jackson of LKJ Consulting Engineers; Greg Johnson of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE); Jason Stouf, Custer County Commissioner and member of the Flood Control Steering Committee; and Samantha Malenovsky, city flood plain administrator, gave presentations and answered questions for about 50 people who attended the meeting at Miles Community College.

Malenovsky opened the meeting by introducing Jackson, whose company has been working with the city administration for several years on the project. Jackson reviewed the timeline of the flood control issue in Miles City and explained that KLJ would like to see the community create a flood control system that would “transcend generations,” since the problem has existed since the town was founded.

Jackson also explained what the oft-mentioned Section 205 is. The term refers to Section 205 of the 1948 Flood Protection Act. Section 205 allows the USACE to study and build projects under a certain dollar amount without having to get prior congressional authorization. 

The maximum for a Section 205 projects is $15 million, raised recently from $10 million. Because building the entire project along both the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers would cost more than Section 205 authorizes, Jackson said building the Tongue River section first and then the Yellowstone section will keep the projects under the required amount.

Greg Johnson, a hydraulic engineer with the USACE who now works in project planning and management, said that, unlike the “Corps of the fifties,” which dictated engineering solutions, the USACE now works on “coming up with a project that works for you.”

The Corps has been involved in flood protection systems for Miles City for decades with the first levee designed by the Corps in 1932. Then there was the 1950 design and the 1974-78 proposal. None were ever built and they were all “de-authorized” in 1978 when the city and county made it clear they were not interested in paying for a levee. There was a study of the Tongue River only in 2005.

Johnson said the situation was at a standstill until the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a new flood map in 2010 that put more than 80 percent of the structures in Miles City in the flood plain or flood way.

That 2005 study looked at only the Tongue River because there is less “real estate” to dealt with than along the Yellowstone, according to Johnson. What Johnson called a “rough reconnaissance study” showed that a $4.5 million flood protection project would provide a $30 million benefit. 

That creates a cost-benefit ratio of almost seven to one which is, according to Johnson, “off the charts.” Cost-to-benefit is a key factor in getting approval for projects.

The most important thing in getting a project done, Johnson said, is “Do I have a ready, willing and able sponsor” for the project. The community to benefit from the project must sponsor the project, providing 50 percent of the cost of the initial study in either hard cash match or as an in-kind match. 

In the construction phase of the project, the Corps provides 65 percent of the funding and the sponsor 35 percent. Since the sponsor, in this case Miles City, must provide the land necessary for the construction, the assessed value of the land will be applied to the match.

Johnson also clarified that the Corps no longer does the actual construction but oversees a contractor chosen by competitive bid.

All of the environmental work including mitigation is included as part of the feasibility study and can include complimentary opportunities such as providing for recreation along the rivers.

While Johnson stated,”I can’t guarantee everybody will be happy,” the Corps is “very committed to a collaborative process.” 

The Corps prefers that a Section 205 study be completed in two-to-three years but this study is anticipated to take longer, up to 42 months, because of the level of complexity. After the feasibility studies come the design studies and then actual construction. Then FEMA will re-evaluate the map for flood insurance.

The entire project is estimated to take 9-10 years, at minimum, depending on funding and other issues.

Ideally, the Section 205 project on the Yellowstone River will be done concurrently and information from the Tongue study can be applied to the Yellowstone to save time and money. 

The confluence of the two rivers, said Johnson, creates a “very dynamic and difficult situation.” The goal it to make sure that the project “addresses the Tongue and doesn’t make the Yellowstone any worse.”

The high number of ice jams that occur in this area — the most recorded in the state—add to the complexity.

Due to the pattern of floods and ice jams, the Corps wants to complete the Tongue project first, then see how it affects the Yellowstone to plan that project, rather than the reverse.

 Stouf, the county commissioner, explained some of the funding issues with both the study and the final project. The entire match will not have to be paid in a single fiscal year but will be spread out over three and possibly four fiscal years. Since the federal government uses a slightly different fiscal year than the county, with careful planning, the burden of match can be spread out even more.

Stouf also mentioned that while grants are often mentioned, those grants also are awarded on schedules and are competitive. Planning funds must come out of the general fund and cannot be paid for in a separate levy.

The city and county are still negotiating the cost sharing agreement for the study. For the design and construction portion, Strouf said “something along the lines of a (special taxing) district” will probably be used, with that district going to the voters for approval.

During the question phase after the presentations, a number of issues were brought up, including alternative means of controlling flooding besides levees, other methods of funding, and whether changes to the river from Yellowtail Dam and climate change have affected flooding.

Johnson specified that the Corps is “prohibited from transferring risk.” This means they can’t divert the water so that it causes damage somewhere else. He also said that, at this point, the exact location of the levees or flood walls or whatever system is used and the exact properties that will be affected is not known.

How the land would be acquired is also not known. Ken Holmlund asked about using “imminent domain” and everyone said that would be a last resort.

Johnson also said that he is sure there is a “sweet spot out there” for designing, funding and building a flood protection system for Miles City.

Malenovsky closed the evening by telling anyone who has questions to contact her or Scott Gray at the City Engineer’s Office in City Hall or contact Jason Stouf or Jeff Ehrlenbusch, who make up the Flood Steering Committee.