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Arizona’s ‘Orphaned’ Levees Increase Flood Risks

There are dozens of levees across Arizona that are intended for protection against floods but it is unclear how many of them are being properly maintained.

Last August, the town of Duncan faced a flooding emergency when a levee broke, flooding homes and businesses in the small community.

The Gila River, near Duncan, which is east of Safford along the Arizona-New Mexico border, reached a “major” flood stage after heavy rains from monsoon storms.

The ABC15 Investigators returned to the town where there are concerns that no one is taking responsibility or helping repair the levee that broke.

Terry Hinton, Duncan’s town manager, was on the job for three weeks when the flood happened.

“If we get one of the big floods that they’ve had here in the past, it’ll walk right through this,” Hinton said.

Since last summer, little change has been made to the levee that broke. Hinton and a few of the town’s employees worked to fill in parts of the levees that failed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also did emergency repair work around a water treatment facility, but repair work beyond that was minimal, according to Hinton.

There is little information on the levee that protects Duncan, Hinton said it crosses several different property lines, but he can’t track down who built it or exactly when.

Hinton said the levee is still at risk of a major flood, adding “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a database of levees across the country; however, not every levee is included. Duncan’s levee, for example, is not found in the database.

“We don’t have the personnel or the equipment to maintain it,” he said.

Hinton said no one inspects the levee, but he tries to do it himself, and when asked who should be inspecting it, he said, “I don’t know; no one takes responsibility for it.”

“No one wants to take ownership of it,” he added.

The flooding caused over $300,000 in damages and lost revenue to the Reynolds family farm last year.

Matt Reynolds tells the ABC15 Investigators he woke up that August morning to his farm flooding and cows in flood water.

This is not the first levee breach for Duncan.

“Just the way life here – been getting flooded several times over last 100 years,” said Reynolds. “It has really been a hurt on this town – kind of killed it after floods from early 80s and 90s – a lot of people left Duncan.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives Arizona a C- when it comes to levees. Their latest Infrastructure Report Card from 2020 concluded that over 270 Arizona levees in the National Levee Database have likely not been screened to see what condition they’re in.

Local jurisdictions like a town or city are in charge of their levees, but the ABC15 Investigators have found oversight is spotty. We reached out to the Arizona Department of Water Resources because it supervises the safety of dams, but a spokesperson said they don’t do levees, citing a state statute that puts levees outside their jurisdiction.

Arizona State University professor Edward Kavazanjian with the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment refers to levees that no one claims as “orphan” levees.

“There’s often very little known about those, about their condition, whether anybody’s watching, inspecting them,” he said. “Is there any kind of casual communication or response plan? So it’s, it’s an issue.”

The latest Infrastructure Report Card also raises concerns about what the changing climate means for levees.

It is difficult to confidently say that Arizona’s levees are resilient to the changing climate since 278 levees have not been screened. More data is needed to be able to properly assess the resilience of Arizona’s levees. Furthermore, innovation is lacking in our approach to inspections and much less in our levee technologies, the report stated.

The American Society of Civil Engineers also wrote that there is no centralized database for local jurisdictions to provide information on how much it costs to operate and maintain levees in Arizona, “Without a Levee Safety Action Classification for all the levees in Arizona, it is difficult to quantify the cost of the repairs, inspections, and relevant operation and maintenance (O&M) activities.”

As for people like Reynolds who live in Duncan, “places like this are forgotten, we don’t exist to a lot of people, just a little dot on the map that you can read,” he said.