WRDA approval secures levee project
The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) has been secured in Congress that will continue the Winslow Levee Project.
The bill authorizes federal funding to refurbish the decertified levee. However, according to Winslow City Manager John Barkley, “The biggest challenge now is that we are up against other projects for the funding aspect, and the Winslow project has a relatively lower Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) score than other proposed projects. Those calculations are the scoring metric used to select the highest value project via the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. They lean more towards larger scale projects with greater potential regional economic impacts. So we are now setting our sights on pursuing a new economic validation study to hopefully increase our BCR.”
The authorization of funding has been the reason for the delay in the Winslow Levee improvements over the last few years and should result in appropriations allowing the next step to take place.
The project, which has multiple phases, will ultimately cost $66.2 million with a Navajo County match of 35 percent, or about $23 million.
A press release from Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema explains the act is a bipartisan authorization for the Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction on the Winslow levee project to reduce the risk of flooding in Winslow.
According to Sinema’s office, she has been an integral part in bringing attention to this issue. A letter written by Sinema to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works in February 2020 may have started the conversation. In it, she said, “The City of Winslow and surrounding areas are at risk of flooding under moderate to high flow flood events on the Little Colorado River. The existing levee system along the river is at risk of failure posing a grave threat to the entire town which lies in the floodplain.”
She continued, “Additionally, the risk of flooding in the area poses a threat to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad bridge that crosses the river. More than $35 billion in freight crosses this bridge annually, providing a direct link between Chicago and the Port of Los Angeles.”
Not only is the railroad bridge at risk from a flood event, but also property in Winslow including nearly all of the homes in the town. In 2008 the Federal Emergency Management Agency decertified the levee, adding 2,700 parcels to the flood plain, including 1,500 structures. With the decertification of the levee, nearly two-thirds of the residents, many on a limited income, are required to carry flood insurance. FEMA mandates that nearly every flood control system in the country be improved, an order that came down following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Barkley said, “Beyond the benefits of improved level of public safety and security associated with the Winslow Levee project, Winslow property owners located in the current floodplain would be alleviated of the tremendous financial burden of carrying the cost of insurance. Developers would be more apt to use their precious capital resources up-front to build residential, commercial and industrial structures in Winslow without the cost prohibitive floodplain regulations and restrictions currently mandated by FEMA. Many of our local and regional public facilities are also located within the floodplain, which adds to the potential risk and liability faced by local leaders in the event of a 100-year flood incident.”
According to Winslow’s Vice Mayor Samantha Crisp, “Representative Tom O’Halleran came for a visit along with the Army Corps of Engineers in 2018. He has been advocating for us to receive funding to move forward for a lot of years so it is great news that Senator Sinema is also on board.”
Following that 2018 visit, the Corps completed a final integrated feasibility report and an environmental impact statement. In that report, the final recommendations include reconstructing the levee system and installing a flood warning system. Last year, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors, along with area municipalities approved an agreement to purchase, install and maintain those warning systems. The cost will be covered by Navajo County as part of their levee improvement budget.
O’Halleran said, “Arizona communities will directly benefit from this legislation. Funding for the Army Corps of Engineers will allow important flood control projects to continue. This protects our rural and tribal communities, creates good paying jobs, and stimulates local economies across the state.”
There is not yet a time line on when the next phase will begin for the levee project. Once completed, it is projected to be an incentive for further development in Winslow, according to the city manager.
Barkley concluded, “I see this as a regional issue. One that requires buy-in at all levels of government and the business community. We remain cautiously optimistic that the Navajo County and Winslow flood control districts will have its collective voice heard in Washington, and that we will receive the attention and resources that are absolutely critical to not only our public safety, but also the future socio-economic viability of Winslow and its neighboring jurisdictions along the Little Colorado River.”