It’s not every day a district employee gets to be involved with creating national policy.
Michael Bart, the district’s chief of engineering and construction, was given that opportunity starting in September 2007, when he was asked to serve as the team lead of the Corps’ new Levee Safety Policy and Procedures Team. He had just finished a seven-month assignment at the Corps’ Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans as the deputy for execution support and had been assisting with the Corps’ Dam Safety Program for a couple of years when he agreed to serve in this role.
The creation of this team, which includes around 25 individuals of various disciplines from across the Corps and a few retirees, coincided with the 2007 passage of the National Levee Safety Act and the launching of the National Levee Database. “After Hurricane Katrina, it became evident that we needed national levee safety policies and procedures,” said Bart. “At the time, we didn’t have a database to tell us levee heights or even locations in many instances.”
Whereas the National Levee Database was developed to eventually include all levees in the U.S., the Corps’ Levee Safety Program focuses on Corps-associated levees. These levees include systems operated and maintained by the Corps, systems built by the Corps and transitioned to a local partner to operate and maintain and systems not built by the Corps but meet the criteria to be in the Corps’ Rehabilitation and Inspection Program. This portfolio includes approximately 2,000+ systems or around 15,000 miles of levee out of an estimated 100,000 miles of levee across the U.S.
The team was charged with developing an Engineer Circular for the Corps’ Levee Safety program. The Engineer Circular would combine, in a single location, national policy and procedures for the Corps’ Levee Safety Program. The objectives of the program were to develop balanced and informed assessments of the Corps-associated levees; evaluate, prioritize and justify levee safety decisions; and make recommendations to improve life safety associated with levees.
To date, the levee team has completed a number of tasks to include developing a standardized assessment program with both annual and periodic inspections, interim risk reduction measures for levees and a levee safety classification system that communicates what might happen, or potential risk, if a levee system were to breach. Bart said the team is working on completing an Engineer Circular this year that will ultimately turn into a Corps regulation.
In 2009, the Corps received $90 million in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, or ARRA, funds to do periodic inspections of its Corps-associated levee systems. These periodic inspections are more thorough than the annual inspections and will now be completed about every five years. A system can be given an acceptable, minimally acceptable or unacceptable rating, and a system with an unacceptable rating may become ineligible for federal rehabilitation assistance if damaged in a flood or storm event.
In addition to the inspections, the team developed the levee safety classification assessments, which will be unveiled soon. Broadly, this system was developed to identify levee safety issues, assess the risk of flooding, identify ways to reduce risk and use the information learned to make better decisions. The assessment includes looking at inspection information; design and construction records; engineering assessments; performance observations; and life safety, economic and environmental consequences. A system can be rated from a 1, being urgent, to a 5, normal.
Bart said the team hopes to have a formal draft of its Engineering Circular later this year. “This regulation affects our sponsors, so how do you get sponsor involvement and input as part of this process?” he asked. The team has hosted 12 webinars, two major workshops and two mini workshops. To date, he said, they have received nearly 1,500 comments and are sorting through them as they prepare the circular’s chapters.
Developing this program has taken a lot of time and a lot of hours, said Bart. Further, the members of the team are all participating in an additional duty capacity. “We were stealing good ideas battle tested from the dam safety program,” he said. “The difference between this and the dams, though, is that we don’t do most of the operations and maintenance on these projects.”
The team was also implementing while it was moving forward. “It’s been kind of like building the airplane while we’re flying,” he said. “It has been challenging, rewarding and, at times, frustrating.
“I’ve gotten to work with some of the best folks, very talented folks, from across the Corps,” he continued. “We’ve had a lot of intelligent discussions. It has stretched me personally and professionally.”
Serving in this role and in his district role as the chief of engineering and construction, he said, has been interesting. “I can tell you what we were thinking when a policy was written, I’m able to see how it’s working at the district level, and I’m able to modify it,” he said.
This has also meant that a number of additional St. Paul District team members have gotten involved in the Levee Safety Program. District staff tested the St. Paul, Minn., levee system for the second levee risk assessment, said Bart, and a number of individuals from the district have provided expertise to include Neil Schwanz, Pat Foley, Kari Hauk, Paul Madison, Tim Grundhoffer, Jeff McGrath and many others. “It’s never been just me,” he emphasized.
Due to the amount of time involved, Bart said he will soon be transitioning the team’s leadership but will continue to contribute to the program as a team member. “The opportunity to be in on the ground floor of a national program doesn’t always happen in one’s career,” he said. “It’s definitely been one of the most exciting things I’ve worked on in my whole career.”