The Macon Levee

Friends of Ocmulgee Old Fields

The  Macon Levee in 2007


Ken Sheets, Dave Fortson and Keith Braswell of the Bibb County Engineering Department stand on the Macon levee in April while inspectors with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspect the levee inside the city of Macon.

Posted on Fri, Dec. 14, 2007

Reichert: Levee trees have to go

By S. Heather Duncan -

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert issued his first executive order Thursday: Get the trees off the city levee.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for inspecting the levee, had given the city until January 2008 to correct problems with the earthen embankment that helps protect Macon from floods. The city has made many improvements but has left hundreds of mature trees undermining the levee, corps inspections indicate.

Corps officials met with Reichert on Wednesday, his first day in office, to update him on the problems. Reichert said he understands that the corps will give the city one more year to remove the trees if action starts right away.

So Thursday, Reichert issued an order to the city's Public Works, Parks and Recreation and engineering departments, telling them to develop a plan for removing the trees.

"It's going to be expensive, but hopefully we can do it all in-house," Reichert said. He said he also plans to ask Bibb County to help with the work, which would include not only cutting down trees but digging their root systems out of the ground and filling in the holes.

As recently as last week, the corps indicated it would decertify the levee if its problems had not been fixed within a month. Decertification could drive up flood-insurance costs for properties behind the levee, including buildings downtown.

Corps officials did not return calls seeking information about the outcome of the Macon meeting.

An October inspection by the corps gave the levee a rating of "minimally acceptable, maintenance required." While acknowledging the city has made progress to correct some deficiencies, the remaining problems "continue to present an increased risk to the public interest," according to a letter from Stanley Clark, chief of the Navigation Management Branch for the corps' Savannah district.

The corps doesn't allow trees on levees because if they tip over in heavy winds and rain, their root systems can pull out large chunks of the bank, creating spaces for water to cross inside.

Danny Tavakol, director of the city engineering department, said last week that Macon had held off on removing the trees because it has asked the corps to study abandoning a large portion of the levee, which might make most of the tree removal unnecessary. The corps would conduct the study with department funding, but the city would have to chip in half the costs after the first $100,000 was spent. No one knows what the study would cost, but most studies with this kind of scope cost more than $1 million, according to the corps.

Although Congress has given the corps permission to pursue the study, the city still doesn't have the money to pay for its share, Reichert said. He noted that it could be months or years before the federal funding is even finalized. That's why he wants to push ahead with the tree removal.

"We're trying to show the corps that we are responsive," he said.


To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

Posted on Wed, Dec. 12, 2007

Ocmulgee levee problems subject of scheduled meeting today

By S. Heather Duncan -

Almost a year ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave Macon one year to fix problems with its levee. The largest portion of that work, the removal of hundreds of mature trees from the earthen embankment, has not been done.

Corps and city officials are scheduled to meet today to discuss the levee.

Stan Clarke, chief of the navigation branch operations division for the corps, indicated in an e-mail last week that "all deficiencies must be corrected by January 2009," or the levee that protects Macon from floods will be decommissioned. That could drive up flood insurance costs for properties behind the levee, including buildings downtown.

But Danny Tavakol, head of Macon's engineering department, said he understood that the corps was giving the city a two-year reprieve until a study of the levee can be completed.

That study, requested by Macon and Bibb County, was authorized by Congress last month, said Sheridan Watson, press secretary for Sen. Johnny Isakson. Isakson served on the conference committee for the bill.

The study would be conducted by the corps. Half the cost would be funded through an internal corps program, but Macon would still have to pony up the other half, said Rashida Banks, a public affairs specialist for the corps. Although the scope of the study hasn't been determined, similar studies have cost more than $1 million, she said.

The city is responsible for maintaining the levee, and the corps is responsible for building and inspecting it.

Former Mayor Jack Ellis expressed interest in a levee study for years, but none materialized because the financially strapped city hasn't been able to scrape together the matching funds. It's unclear what might be different this time.

Ellis traveled to Washington last week to meet with a corps official. Afterward, through his spokesman, Ron Wildman, Ellis said he believed the funding was arranged. According to Wildman, Ellis declined to say who he met with. Clarke said he didn't know who met with Ellis or what was discussed.

The proposed study would consider whether the levee could be shortened, perhaps by about two-thirds, Tavakol said. When the modern levee was built about 50 years ago, it protected many businesses in a bustling southern industrial district, he noted. But now most of those are gone, leaving mostly brick yards, a sewage treatment plant, a dump and polluted empty land.

"We don't think the levee needs to be almost 6 miles long," Tavakol said.

If a large portion of the levee is abandoned, floodwaters can be absorbed by land south of the city, relieving some of the pressure on the remaining levee and probably requiring less work on it. The part of the levee that separates downtown from the west bank of the Ocmulgee River is the portion in the best shape.

Many of the large trees that need to be removed are on the southern levee. "If we're going to shorten the levee, there's no point in spending millions of dollars to remove trees," Tavakol said.

The corps doesn't allow trees on levees because if they tip over in heavy winds and rain, their root systems can pull out large chunks of the bank, creating spaces for water to cross inside.

Tavakol said the city completed a levee management plan in March that called for only routine maintenance, and that the corps approved it. However, Banks said the corps requested additional information before approving the plan, and the city has not provided it.

Tavakol said Macon has improved maintenance of the levee in the meantime, removing small bushes and brush, grassing slopes and filling in eroded areas. He said the city had not received a report on its October inspection, but inspectors verbally acknowledged the improvements.

Banks said the results of the inspection were similar to previous inspections. The inspection report is public information under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Last week, she said a copy of the inspection would be provided to The Telegraph at the beginning of this week. Tuesday, she said the corps would not release it until after meeting with city officials today.

The corps has criticized the city's levee maintenance for years but never done anything about it. Finally, after a round of inspections following Hurricane Katrina, the corps indicated in January that Macon's levee was the only major one in Georgia that was in such bad shape it might not hold back floodwaters.

That's when the federal agency first openly threatened to withdraw its guarantee that the levee can hold back a 100-year flood. Such a flood has a 1 percent chance of happening each year and can happen multiple times in a century.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

Posted by: NeighborsWatching:

"So, Saxby, Jim & Johnny can make sure that Iraqi people get billions for their roads, bridges, schools, embassies and levees but can't send a measley million down here to plug the dike?
Which flag do they pledge allegiance to?

Saxby, Jim & Johnny's campaign slogans should be:
"Iraq First, Zero Tolerance for Funding Domestic, Homeland Issues."

Posted on Wed, Mar. 21, 2007

Bibb widens unification work
Commissioners add traffic engineering to list of services that could be combined with Macon departments
By Phillip Ramati

Also discussed Tuesday was a letter sent by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to both the city and the county about maintenance of Macon's levee.

Because the levee is controlled by the city, Layson said the county is only copied on the letters but realizes that it's an important issue that could affect flood insurance in the city.

"We don't want another tennis court situation," Commissioner Elmo Richardson said in the meeting, alluding to issues between the two governments that delayed needed repairs to the John Drew Smith Tennis Center.

The commission directed county engineer Ken Sheets to continue maintenance to the part of the levee still controlled by the county...

Posted on Fri, Apr. 06, 2007

Officials get look-see at levee during Macon visit
By Chuck Thompson

Tom Childs and Ronnie Westbury with the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers, walk along the top of Macon's earthen levee Thursday in Central City Park.
Macon's and Bibb County's top engineers spent Thursday morning hiking along the Ocmulgee River with inspectors from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to survey Macon's levee.

The 65-year-old levee, which this year was included on a list of 122 inadequate levees in the country, was checked for problems that could lead to its failure in the event of a flood. Inspectors also wanted to see how the city and county are maintaining it.

Thursday's inspection was a regularly scheduled semiannual survey by the corps.

Ronnie Westbury, a construction representative based in the corps' Savannah District office, said his team will prepare a report of its findings, and copies will be sent to the city and county. Midway through Thursday's inspection, Westbury said the levee is generally in good shape and that no new major issues were spotted.

That doesn't mean the 5.5-mile levee is without problems.

The corps informed Macon and Bibb County late last year that the levee could be decertified if those governments did not address ongoing concerns about the levee's maintenance. Decertification could lead to increased flood insurance costs for businesses and homes located in the river's flood plain behind the levee.

Macon City Councilman Rick Hutto, chairman of the council's Public Works and Engineering Committee, said it "is absolutely vital" that the levee be maintained properly.

"We can't afford to have happen here what happened in New Orleans," Hutto said. "And we also can't afford to have people with homes and businesses in the area not be able to get insurance."

The national list of inadequate levees was prepared following the failures of the levees around New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Macon's levee is mostly a mounded dirt barrier along the west bank of the Ocmulgee. It begins at the Otis Redding Bridge at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and continues south past Central City Park and the businesses in Macon's old industrial area.

Its major problem, according to the corps, is large trees that have been allowed to grow along its banks.

If trees are toppled during high water conditions, Westbury said, the root systems pulled from the levee could leave holes that flood waters could enter and possibly cause a levee breach.

"You have problems when these trees die," he said. "The root systems decay and leave weak spots in the levee."

Another problem with large trees: Their shade can prevent grass from growing on the banks where needed, he said. Grass helps hold the dirt in place and prevent natural erosion, Westbury said, as do shrubs.

Interim Macon City Engineer Danny Tavakol, who joined the inspectors Thursday, said the city last week submitted a new maintenance plan to the corps and is waiting to hear if it will be approved.

The plan includes cutting smaller trees and large shrubs that could grow and weaken the levee, plus correcting problems with erosion of dirt portions and maintaining the concrete wall that tops the first portion of the levee from the Otis Redding Bridge to Central City Park.

But dealing with the large trees is a problem, Tavakol said.

"You can't just cut them down, because then the roots and stumps will rot and leave holes," he said. "Then you would have to dig out the root systems and repack those areas with new dirt. That would take a lot of work and be very expensive."

Tavakol did not say how the city's new plan addresses the big trees, but in the past the city and county have proposed dealing with big trees individually as they die or fall, and it has proposed widening the levee in areas where there are mature trees growing.

Hutto complained that the city administration has not kept council informed about the progress of the levee plan or what is being done to address problems.

"It just isn't acceptable that they let those trees grow up and become a problem," he said. "The whole point is they should have been maintaining it all along and not let it become an emergency situation."

Hutto also said the city remains eligible for federal funds to help pay for the levee work, but only if the corps accepts the city's plan by the end of the year.

"That's certainly one thing we're going to try to stay on top of in our committee," he said.

Since the Great Flood of 1994, when the river overran the southern part of the levee and washed out a breach, the city has been responsible for the levee's maintenance plan. But Bibb County still performs maintenance work on the southern third of the levee, and the city does the work on the northern two-thirds.

Bibb County Engineer Ken Sheets and engineers Keith Braswell and Dave Fortson from his office also accompanied the inspectors during Thursday's inspection. Sheets said county commissioners requested he participate in the inspection and report back to them.

Information from The Telegraph's archives was used in this report.
To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 744-4489.

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