SEATTLE - Washington has the second-highest number of levees considered by the Army Corps of Engineers to be at risk of failing, mostly because of a lack of maintenance, corps officials said Thursday.
The agency identified 19 suspect levees - located in Kent, Renton, Carnation and North Bend - on the Green, Cedar, Tolt and Snoqualmie rivers in King County.
The information was included in a list released by the corps in response to Freedom of Information Act requests filed by news organizations, including The Associated Press.
According to the data, Washington ranked behind California, which led the list with 37. All total, 122 levees across the country are at risk of failing.
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The corps inspects levees every two years. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it began a list of levees, to better track those in need of maintenance.
"There was a need to develop a national database of levees, to do inspection of all these levees," said Nola Leyde, a corps spokeswoman.
On Wednesday, letters were sent to communities near the levees notifying them of an "unacceptable maintenance inspection rating." That means a levee has one or more problems, which can include movement of floodwalls, faulty culverts, animal burrows, erosion or tree growth, according to a statement released by the corps.
In Washington, the primary concern appeared to be trees, Leyde said.
"That's the problem with most of these levees on our list - vegetation is overgrown," she said.
The corps historically has constructed the levees and has turned most of them over to local communities for operations and maintenance.
Levee sponsors have been given a year to correct deficiencies, Leyde said. If they fail to meet the government's maintenance criteria, they risk losing eligibility for federal money to help pay for damage in a disaster.
The levees targeted in Washington fall under the responsibility of King County Water and Land Resources, said Mark Isaacson, director of the county agency.
The department is aware of a number of structural and maintenance issues concerning all 500 of its levees, including some identified by the corps, he said.
"We've already identified a plan to fix them. What we need now is the money," Isaacson said, adding that between $179 million and $335 million would be needed over the next 10 years to cover necessary repairs and maintenance.
If the corps determines a levee to be at risk of failing, homeowners in that area could be required to purchase flood insurance, though exceptions can be made.
As the corps decertifies the adequacy of a particular levee, it also notifies the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which can take away the credit communities get on their flood insurance rate for having a levee.
"The issue of levee safety is not a flood insurance or a flood mapping issue, it's a public safety issue," said Mike Howard, a spokesman for FEMA's Region 10, which covers Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Washington. "No levee is ever completely safe, and citizens living behind levees should not be lulled into a false sense of security."
Howard said anyone near a levee should have two evacuation routes out of the area, and have an emergency plan and disaster supplies ready. He also stressed the importance of flood insurance.
"You don't need to live in a flood plain to need flood insurance," Howard said.
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Tips on preparing for a disaster: www.ready.gov or www.fema.gov
19 levees in need of maintenance
The project names and locations of the 19 levees in Washington state the Army Corps of Engineers considers to be at risk of failing:
Green River Monk, Renton
Cedar River Alquist, Renton
Cedar River Herzman, Renton
Cedar River WPA, Renton
Tolt River Frew, Carnation
Tolt River Highway to Bridge, Carnation
Green River County Road No. 8, North Bend
South Fork Snoqualmie River Stanly Carlin, North Bend
South Fork Snoqualmie River Prairie Acres, North Bend
South Fork Snoqualmie River McConkey, North Bend
South Fork Snoqualmie River Reif Road, North Bend
South Fork Snoqualmie River Si View, North Bend
South Fork Snoqualmie River Bendigo Left (upper), North Bend
South Fork Snoqualmie River Bendigo Left (lower), North Bend
South Fork Snoqualmie River Bendigo Right (lower), North Bend
South Fork Snoqualmie River Bendigo Right (upper), North Bend
Green River Upper Russell, Kent
Cedar River Getchman, Kent
Cedar River Rainbow Bend, Kent
Information provided by the Army Corps of Engineers