The Macon Levee

Friends of Ocmulgee Old Fields

The  Macon Levee in 2008

Trees removed to strengthen Macon's levee

November 2008
A skidder pulls a load of trees Tuesday that were removed from within 4,000 feet of the Macon levee near the sewer treatment plant. Contractors have been removing trees from a wooded section of Macon’s levee for a week in an effort to bring it up to federal standards so property behind it can maintain federal flood insurance coverage.
Woody Marshall/The Telegraph

A skidder travels along the top of the Macon levee near the sewer treatment plant Tuesday. The Macon Water Authority is clearing trees from within 4,000 feet of the levee in an effort to bring it up to federal standards so property behind it can maintain federal flood insurance coverage.
Woody Marshall/The Telegraph
Randy Smith with the Macon Water Authority watches a skidder pull trees that were removed from within 4,000 feet of the Macon levee near the sewer treatment plant Tuesday. Contractors have been removing trees from a wooded section of Macon’s levee for a week in an effort to bring it up to federal standards so property behind it can maintain federal flood insurance coverage.

Tuesday, Nov. 04, 2008

Trees removed to strengthen Macon's levee


Contractors have been removing trees from a wooded section of Macon’s levee in an effort to help the city maintain its federal flood insurance coverage.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been threatening to decertify Macon’s levee for several years because the integrity of the earthen embankment is undermined by the mature trees growing on it. If trees 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.

Decertification of the levee could drive up flood-insurance costs for properties behind the levee.

The city is responsible for maintaining the levee, and the corps is responsible for building and inspecting it. But the city is not paying for the current work.

Instead, the Macon Water Authority stepped in because its Lower Poplar sewage treatment plant would suffer most from losing flood protection, said Macon Mayor Robert Reichert.

Some authority officials called it “being a good neighbor” to the city, but authority board Chairman Frank Amerson was more blunt.

“We spent money on the levee because the city wasn’t doing it,” he said. “We cannot let the Poplar Street plant get out from under FEMA protection.”

That would leave water and sewer customers holding the bag for millions of dollars in replacement costs if a flood destroyed the low-lying plant, which serves many local industries as well.

Authority project manager Randy Smith said the authority is paying $278,600 to contracting firm Phillips and Jordan to remove the trees, stumps and roots, then repack the levee and rebuild the slope on the river side.

The contract covers about 4,000 feet of the levee that borders a privately owned farm where the tree cover is heaviest, Smith said.

Amerson and Reichert agreed the city will be responsible for maintaining the improvements once the authority has paid to clear the levee.

“But at least this will keep it in the program,” Amerson said. “I think we’ve shown the corps we keep our word. ... The city’s got to make some decisions and keep it up and do their job.”

The authority met repeatedly with the corps this year to make sure the work would satisfy the agency’s concerns, Amerson said.

Billy Birdwell, public affairs officer for the corps’ Savannah office, said in a recent interview that the corps delayed its annual inspection of the levee, usually done in the fall, until January to give time for completing the tree removal.

Macon allowed trees to grow on the levee for decades with no complaint from the corps during annual inspections.

But the agency began requesting changes in the 1990s. Those requests turned to demands after a round of inspections following Hurricane Katrina.

At that time, the corps indicated that Macon had the only major levee in Georgia that might not hold back a “100-year” flood.

Such a deluge has a 1 percent chance of happening each year.

Former Macon Mayor Jack Ellis’s administration wanted the corps to conduct a broad study of options for the levee, ranging from raising it to abandoning two-thirds of it.

If only a small levee were left to protect downtown Macon, city leaders had suggested, a berm or dike could be built to protect the Lower Poplar sewage treatment plant. Amerson said engineers investigated that possibility after the historic 1994 flood but determined it wouldn’t work because of the water table and soil type.

Birdwell says the corps has not pursued a study because the city has not agreed to pay half the costs after the first $100,000. Similar studies have run more than $1 million, corps officials say.

Reichert said he favors a basic assessment of what levee options should be considered — potentially including, for example, breaching the levee south of downtown.

But he says he wants federal funds for the basic assessment before the city commits to the full study.

“I think it’s a hard sell to anybody, much less City Council, to say: Would you pay half of an unknown amount for an unknown project?” said Reichert, whose first day in office was dominated by a corps ultimatum about levee improvements.

The Telegraph archives contributed to this report.

politically_incorrect wrote on 11/04/2008 00:47:58 AM:

OK, I have a question... If the tree will damage the levee by being blown over in a storm, then once the tree is cut down and removed, why do the remaining roots have to be dug up? Seriously... Wouldn't leaving the roots help to hold soil in place?

Afarmer wrote on 11/04/2008 05:28:49 AM:

no grass planted would help not old dead stumps

dewdrop wrote on 11/04/2008 09:45:19 AM:

And How many years after the fact has it taken?

rcs wrote on 11/04/2008 10:33:48 AM:

After time the root system deteriorates and leaves a void which in turn actually weakens the soil.

I had thought we had made progress on subdividing it, but this shows different. Local leaders are strengthening
the Levee piece by piece and this is a major action toward keeping it.

Although they mention subdividing it as a possibility, the money spent on this action is directly contrary to it. Instead of conducting a federal study and initiating a federal project, they are bypassing preservation laws, such as those affecting the Monument and the TCP, and conducting a series of local projects to minimize the federal costs and actions required.

By repairing faulty sections of the Levee through local means, they are reducing the future federal cost of the overall project, which will result in a better benefit/cost ratio to justify a federal project. They couldn't justify this project in the past, but after this action, they may can justify raising the levee another foot to gain 100-year flood protection in the future. They are using a previous 1995 or 1997 Corps study, which could not be initiated because the costs outweighed the benefits, as the guideline for what actions are needed to gain 100-year flood protection status for the
Macon Levee.

Maybe ten years ago, Macon/Bibb tore down the Washburn Building at the Otis Redding Bridge and built a raised berm, greenway park there, because the Corps had identified it as the weak link at the upper end of the Macon
Levee. This was done as a non-Corps project, with local funding and maybe Ga. Dept. of Community Affairs funding. About five years ago, the City extended the Heritage Trail alongside the river bank below the Otis Redding bridge, but they built it on the river edge of the existing levee to correct a sheer bank problem, identified by the Corps, at a cost of about $1 million. This was way more than the cost of running the trail along the top of the existing levee would have been. Then, they continued the paved trail down to Central City Park. A few months ago, they announced that they had
local grant money to extend the paving on the levee to the end of Central City Park. I did not object to any of these projects because I think this upper end of the Levee is important to keep and strengthen, but I have been aware that each project helps justify the case to keep and strengthen the whole levee.

A few weeks ago, I read where Mayor Reichert was replacing Bill Causey as the Public Works director. Bill has been a staunch  supporter of subdividing the levee. I don't know if he will stay with the City or not. I have not talked to him, but the prospect of possibly losing him is very bad news for efforts to subdivide and restore the floodplain.

Now, I read that the Macon Water Authority has paid $250,000 to remove the trees along the levee, which had been estimated to cost about $1 million. They also dismissed the idea of building a ring levee around their sewage plant to protect it. So, instead of funding a study of subdividing the Levee and building a ring levee, they have started  construction on strengthening the Levee. There is no way the Macon Levee can be subdivided, if a ring levee is not built around the sewage plant!  No Way!  The argument that the soils are not suitable for building one sounds faulty because the plant is located right next to the existing levee. If the soils are unsuitable for a new ring levee, then they are also  unsuitable for the existing levee.

After the Flood of 94', upstream flooded residents rightfully pointed to the Levee as the cause of their flooded homes and even Bibb County Engineer, Bob Fountain, stated that the Macon Levee might have to broken if another big flood hit, in order to save upstream homes. That will not happen now because that could flood the sewage plant, even though the 94' flood only came to the edge of the sewage plant after the levee broke in 1994. That is another reason that the argument about soils doesn't make sense. The plant doesn't need a ten foot high levee around it. A 3 to 5 foot levee would work. It will not have a water current hitting it and it will not have excessive water pressure pushing against it.

Much of the Macon Levee is located within the TCP and this digging up of tree roots on the sides of the levee will impact the ground and whatever is in the ground along the path of the levee. I would think that historic preservation laws would require some investigation and consultation, but they may be avoiding it by saying this is a local government action, not a federal project. I don't know. Who is to say that the tree removal project will not be used to raise the Levee the additional one foot, which is needed in some low spots? Who is to say that the Heritage Trail extension will not raise the levee to help gain its certification as providing 100-year protection?

I ask the Muscogees to oppose this currently on-going project, using heavy, earth-moving equipment in the TCP, not only for the direct impacts, but for the larger reason that the Macon Levee increases flooding in the Monument and TCP and will lead to the private development of the western floodplain, which will have no preservation protections.
The best way to fight this Levee project is to seek its immediate halt for its direct actions and to ask the Federal  Highway Administration and the Ga. DOT to study the cumulative impacts of I-16 and the Macon Levee (raised as
part of the original I-16 construction)  on the Monument and the TCP. We should not be increasing flooding in the Monument and upstream homes and businesses, so the City can promote development in the western floodplain.

Another indication that this is a strategy, is that all the river bridges in Macon are planned to be raised as part of the I-16/I-75 project, to allow these elevated flood levels to become the status quo. If the Macon Levee were subdivided, these bridges would not need to be raised, at a cost of many millions. Do we need to subsidize and promote floodplain development, at any cost, and regardless to damages upstream homes and businesses and adjacent historic lands?

Please contact the City of Macon and the FHWA to insist of flood studies on the impact of I-16/I-75 to the Monument and TCP.



   From: "John Wilson" <>
To: "Joyce Bear" <>
Cc: "Jim David" <>,
        "David Crass" <>,
        "Judy. L. Wood" <>
Subject: Macon Levee Improvements
Date: Mon, 24 Nov 2008 12:17

Hello Joyce,

I have gathered and attached some information to highlight the Corps'
ongoing involvement in strengthening the Macon Levee and its adverse impacts
on the Ocmulgee Old Fields' TCP, the Ocmulgee National Monument and Lamar

The whole focus of the Corps has been and continues to be the protection of
the western floodplain, behind the Macon Levee. The Ocmulgee Old Fields TCP
includes portions of the Macon Levee, including the tree removal area.
However, the Ocmulgee National Monument, Lamar Mounds and the majority of
the TCP are in the eastern floodplain. The Macon Levee increases the
magnitude and frequency of flooding in the eastern floodplain. Therefore,
any and all efforts to maintain and improve the Macon Levee negatively
impact the TCP and National Park properties. The Macon Levee is a federal
project and the Corps conducts routine inspections, which are federally
funded (see 2000 federal funding attachment). They review and approve local
modifications to the Levee, such as the shear escarpment repair (see Shear
Escarpment attachment), which was repaired through the construction of the
Heritage Trail alongside and on top of the levee. A pending second phase of
the Trail will pave the top of the Levee through Central City Park and I'll
bet there has been no consultation regarding this project, located in the
TCP either. The Corps has "required" the escarpment repair and tree removal
project under threat of "decertifying" the Macon Levee as a federal project.
So, although the Corps may not have an official Levee study at the present
time, the Corps is actively involved in this federal project. However, Corps
documents (see 2002 Sand Boils attachment) indicate that the Corps is still
operating under "the ongoing Section 205 study." This study could be the
1997 Section 205 Study, which the Corps had issued public notice of its
completion, but then withdrew it when the benefits/cost analysis proved to
be negative. The Sand Boils section of the Macon Levee is also located
within the TCP.

The attached 1998 letter to the Corps from former Macon Mayor (now
Congressman) Jim Marshall clearly states the case that the trees along the
levee are older than the levee, should not be considered a maintenance issue
and should not be removed. He also states their value for the future
Heritage Trail expansion. His letter also mentions that the Corps is
"rethinking its Levee Vegetation Regulations" to allow trees on levees. The
Corps sent the Mayor documents relating to this "rethinking," which I have seen.

Army Corps to Marshall

A viable alternative to removing the trees was to widen the Macon Levee in
the tree area and this seemed to be an agreed upon solution, as referenced
in a 1999 Corps letter to Mayor Marshall. (see attachment "Widen instead of
remove trees"). This attachment also mentions that the Corps is developing a
Phase 1 Study Report.

In conclusion, the Macon Levee is a federal project, which receives ongoing
federal involvement, funding and permitting. The Corps did not update the
maintenance plan for the Macon Levee when the TCP was designated. The TCP
was designated national register eligible for the purpose of recognizing and
protecting its cultural and natural resources. These protections clearly
apply to any projects with federal involvement. Mowing grass and cutting
down trees are acceptable maintenance operations, but bulldozing mature
trees and digging up their roots should not be considered an acceptable
maintenance activity in the TCP. If this is acceptable, what is an
unacceptable activity in the TCP? This is especially unacceptable when two
alternatives have been proposed to eliminate the need for any tree removal
by heavy equipment - (1) widening the levee in the tree area and (2)
subdividing the levee. A couple of years ago, the City of Macon and
Congressman Marshall asked the Corps to investigate subdividing the Macon
Levee, as a Section 1135 (Floodplain Restoration) and Section 205 (build
subdivider levee & strengthen upper part of existing levee) project. This
"solution" would protect existing businesses behind the Macon Levee and
would reduce the excessive flooding in the Ocmulgee National Monument, Lamar
Mounds, the TCP and up- and down-stream homes, businesses and roads. The
$250,000 the MWA is spending on this tree removal project could have gone a
long way to providing the local match for this Section 1135/205 study.
Instead, it has strengthened the case against subdividing the Levee and a
news article stated the Corps had determined a ring levee around the
treatment plant was infeasible, which indicates a Corps study was performed.

This Section 1135/205 Study and Project could and should be funded through
the FHWA/DOT as cumulative mitigation for the current I-16/I75 Improvement
project, which includes I-16 through the Ocmulgee National Monument. (see
attachment "10 1996 get DOT or FHWA to fix it")

The Corps has determined that I-16 raised 100-year flood levels by 3 to 4 feet in the Ocmulgee National Monument (see attachment "Dredging alternative"). The Macon Levee was also raised by three feet, as part of the construction of 1-16, to offset its resultant increase in flood levels. There is a fundable solution.
Dredging alternative 3.jpg

According to the Corps and USGS flood data, the Macon Levee / I-16 has
raised 100-year flood levels in Macon by five feet or more at the 5th St.
Bridge. (see attachment "flood graph")

In fact, Macon now gets a 100-year flood every ten years (in frequency) due to I-16 and the Macon Levee. (see attachment "03 1996 100") Seventy percent of the Ocmulgee floodway, immediately below downtown Macon, has been impaired or completely blocked
off by levees. A Section 1135 project could reduce this from 70% to 24% and greatly relieve Macon's flooding problems, but the Corps sole focus is on maintaining this problem. (see "Full Flood Profile Map" and related "Floodway restoration" spreadsheet.)


1. Stop the tree removal project immediately. New maintenance guidelines
cannot be developed if the maintenance improves the chances of the Macon
Levee surviving a flood, at the expense of increased flooding to the
Monument and TCP.

2. Hold a meeting to discuss the Macon Levee & the I-16 project at the
Ocmulgee National Monument, with the public, the FHWA, DOT, Corps, NPS,
USF&W, DNR, Macon, Bibb, Jones, MWA, Muscogee Nation and other affiliated
Native American entities participating. There are viable solutions and
funding opportunities.

3. Until there is a change in Corps focus, I believe the Muscogee Nation
should oppose the tree removal project and seek compensatory mitigation,
should oppose the paving of the new Trail on the Levee in the TCP, oppose
any future "sand boils" repairs on the levee, ask the FHWA to mitigate for
the excessive flooding caused by I-16 in their current I-16\I-75 project and
request an EIS for the project. The Ocmulgee National Monument should also
be asked to support these efforts to protect the Monument and the TCP.

Thank you,

John Wilson

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