Utah County - 2003

Provo City and Utah Lake areas as seen on Friday, October 24, 2003.

You don’t need to have a Chevy to say bye bye when it comes to currently dry levees along the Provo River and Utah Lake.

It’s when there is too much water that has federal and city leaders concerned, like a 100-year flooding incident, according to Brian Torgersen, director of the Provo Public Services division.

The issue residents need to be concerned about comes down to this: Either the existing levees are rebuilt to Federal Emergency Management Agency standards, they’re expanded on either side or officials do nothing.

If the city opts to do nothing, the majority of residents living on the west side of Provo will be required to purchase flood insurance for 50 years.

Flood insurance costs would range from $600 to $6,000 a year, according to Torgersen.

The conundrum began after the great flooding of 1982-83 when emergency levees were built along the Provo River and the lake. A levee is an embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river. But these emergency levees do not meet current standards.

FEMA does not recognize the area levees even though they are on city maps.

“FEMA ignores their existence,” Torgersen said. “They have buckled down on levees because of issues that have happened in the Midwest.”

FEMA rules on levees are a one-size-fits-all. So, levee requirements along the Mississippi River are the same requirements for the Provo River.

The Public Services division of Public Works has been working for more than 15 years to see what options there might be and on mapping questions.

They, with other municipalities, have taken the issue all the way to Congress with little hope of getting a variance or an opt-out option. Now, the levee can has been kicked to the end of the road.

FEMA is getting its data from historic water flows rather that looking at projections for the future.

Councilman George Handley said he was concerned the agency was foregoing issues such as drought and climate changes as it analyzes data.

So how are residents affected?

If the city opts to follow FEMA mandates, the cost will be about $74 million to rebuild levees.

If the levees are widened, it will necessitate the purchase of land parcels and also require a 15-foot clearance on either side of the levees.

Because tree roots and levees don’t work well together, FEMA will require all trees and large shrubs to be taken out along the levees, including the large cottonwood trees that shade the walking and biking trails along the Provo River and Utah Lake. That also includes the Provo Municipal Airport. Those trees are part of a bird sanctuary.

Since the 1982-83 flooding, hundreds of homes, churches and schools, including the new Provo High School, have been built on the west side and in the area that FEMA recognizes as a flood area that would be included in a 100-year incident.

There is much more involved in this discussion concerning costs, construction, timelines and action. However, Torgersen said there isn’t a plan in place yet; he is just coming to the council to see how they would like him to proceed.

The council, which had numerous questions and concerns, asked for the subject to come back to another work session in the near future. Until then, the severe drought is making area levees mostly unnecessary.

Daily Herald reporter Genelle Pugmire can be contacted at gpugmire@heraldextra.com, (801) 344-2910, Twitter @gpugmire

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