Agencies pledge to help pursue Milton-Freewater levee fix

Local, state and federal agencies say they'll work to find a solution for the $15 million problem.

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MILTON-FREEWATER -- A host of federal, state, tribal and local agencies pledged Wednesday to continue pursuit of fixes for the city's troubled levee system.

"There's a lot of very hard work ahead," said Dick Townsend, project manager for the Oregon Solutions team, which hosted the meeting. "You need to continue this collaborative effort."

The "declaration of cooperation" ceremony that capped the meeting involved representatives from at least 17 agencies signing on to seek solutions for fixing the problems plaguing the nine miles of levees that protect the city. The system has been rated as "unacceptable" by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which means it is ineligible for federal assistance if it is damaged by a flood or storm.

The "unacceptable" rating has also resulted in the Federal Emergency Management Agency designating a sizeable portion of the city as being in a flood plain. The action will require many residents to buy flood insurance once new FEMA flood maps are finalized in September.

At the meeting, chaired by Oregon state Sen. David Nelson, participants summarized ongoing efforts, ranging from congressional legislation to weed control, intended to address the problems.

Manford Anliker, chairman of the Milton-Freewater Water Control District, said the board will meet Tuesday to decide on putting a bond issue on the November general election ballot to fund repairs on the levee.

The amount of the bond has not yet been determined, he said.

"We will look at all the options," Anliker said. "We don't want to repair symptoms, we want to fix the problem."

But Anliker said "in the big picture" the high cost to fix all of the problems identified by the Corps' most recent inspection is beyond what residents can afford. "It would cost $15 million to repair everything and this community can't afford $15 million," he said.

On the legislative front, Wade Foster of U.S. Rep. Greg Walden's office reported a bill to delay for five years the mandatory purchase of flood insurance by residents in Special Flood Hazard Areas has passed the House and is now in the Senate.

The Flood Insurance Reform Priorities Act, which Walden, R-Ore., voted for, passed the House in July and is now before a Senate committee. But since the Senate is now in recess, a hearing on the measure will probably not be held until September, Foster said.

Along with Nelson and Key, Umatilla County Commissioner Larry Givens was also at Thursday's meeting. In addition to Walden and Wyden, representatives from the office of U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., have also participated in the Oregon Solutions meetings.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

Groups on hand

Federal agencies represented Wednesday included the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Oregon state agencies included the Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Land Conservation and Development, Department of State Lands and Oregon Fish and Wildlife.

Others participating were the Bonneville Power Administration, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Hudson Bay Irrigation District, the Milton-Freewater Chamber of Commerce and representatives of the local business community.

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