Lawmaker tours troubled Milton-Freewater levees

US Rep. Greg Walden met with local residents and officials to take a closer look at the city's flood-plain problem.

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As a group of swimmers play in the Walla Walla River behind them, Herb Bessey, left, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers talks with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., Tuesday about the state of the levees guarding the city. (July 6, 2010)

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U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., left, listens as Brian Wolcott of the Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council talks about flood zones designated for the city of Milton-Freewater by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (July 6, 2010)

MILTON-FREEWATER -- The town's troubled levees got some congressional attention Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., toured portions of the levees lining the Walla Walla River, followed by a round-table discussion about how to repair the structures and redraw federal flood maps, which now will require many city landowners and others to buy flood insurance later this year.

As the hour-plus discussion at the city library showed, quick or easy answers aren't in the cards.

Constructed in the 1950s, the levees have been classified "at-risk" by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers due to areas that need repair. Three bond issues between 2006 and 2008 to raise money for the repairs failed and the levees were de-accredited by the Corps in 2008.

The loss of accreditation came as the Federal Emergency Management Agency was in the process of modernizing flood maps. Because the Milton-Freewater levees are not accredited, new flood maps were drawn as if the levees were basically non-existent, according to FEMA officials.

The result is that much of the city is now considered to be in a floodplain zone, which will require many property owners to buy flood insurance by the start of September. The city recently sent about 1,600 letters to residents to alert them of the situation, said Linda Hall, city manager.

A report assessing the condition of the levees will hopefully be completed in August, said Herb Bessey, Corps levee safety program manager. At that time, officials with the Milton-Freewater Water Control District board, which is charged with maintenance of the levees, and others will have a better idea of what repairs need to be made.

Those repairs may be more extensive than previously thought, said Brian Wolcott of the Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council.

"What we're hearing are there are more areas which will need repair than originally thought," he told Walden at the start of Tuesday's tour.

During the round-table discussion, Walden and others talked with Mark Riebau, chief of FEMA's Region 10 floodplain management and insurance branch, about the procedure to have flood maps redrawn when repairs are made and what rates people will have to pay for flood insurance in the meantime.

The economic toll on area residents means that solutions need to be found quickly, said Manford Anliker, a water control district board member.

"We cannot drag this on for years," he said. "If this community has to go on for year after year paying flood insurance, you'll wind up a ghost town."

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

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