by Emily Walkenhorst
Arkansas officials have collected more than 100 reports from levee districts across the state, giving state leaders a better look for the first time at what districts exist, who is on their boards and what the districts' boundaries are.
After several levee-breach scares, and actual breaches and deteriorations that have allowed flooding in the past 10 years, government officials now have a better picture of the state's levee districts.
However, Arkansas Natural Resources Commission Deputy Director Ryan Benefield said he believes there are still many inactive districts that the state doesn't know about yet.
The Big Ditch levee in Humnoke in Lonoke County, for example, is not accounted for in state or federal databases, even though the levee was breached in March and contributed to the flooding of more than 100 homes.
Officials in the area don't know who built the levee or if a district was ever in charge of it. A request for any incorporation records on a "Big Ditch" levee, drainage or improvement district hadn't resulted in any documents released from the Lonoke County Courthouse as of Friday.
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, in 2016 sponsored legislation that requires county clerks to send levee district reports to the Natural Resources Commission. He said last week that people who are protected by levees or think they are should make sure their levees are served by active levee boards.
Rapert spoke from personal experience. He noted that decades of neglect left the Perry County Levee District No. 1 levee inadequate. In late 2015 and in mid-2016, that levee -- which runs behind Rapert's and others' homes -- failed to protect property in the area of Bigelow and Toad Suck, resulting in crops washing out and people having to flee their homes in boats.
"It's one of those things that everybody seems to ignore until there's an actual flood," Rapert said.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in April 2017 that 35 of the state's 66 levee systems -- or 53 percent (a stretch of 505 miles) -- were rated "unacceptable" by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That was more than all neighboring states other than Mississippi. Of the 35, at least 28 did not have active levee boards.
A 2009 legislative audit report recommended more state oversight of levees, but lawmakers never acted on the recommendation.
In the years since, some levees' problems were repaired with money provided by state or federal taxpayers rather than levee districts.
A federal Government Accountability Office report last year found that requirements intended to improve levees after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans in 2005 have largely been unfunded or unenforced.
Before last year, the only information available on Arkansas' levees was what was in the Corps' online interactive National Levee Database and on the list of levees accredited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Corps' data gauged levee safety, and FEMA's data indicated whether a levee met accreditation standards for purposes of exemption from flood insurance requirements.
The Corps and FEMA have combined their data on the Corps' website in the past year, although FEMA's records do not include safety assessments that the Corps' data do.
The Corps' new database, accessible at https://bit.ly/2P41gQz, went from identifying 67 levee systems in Arkansas to 113. The 67th levee, which was added between the time of the newspaper's analysis and the Corps' incorporation of FEMA data, was rated as "unacceptable."
The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission has received reports from 107 levee districts.
Levee systems refer to the entirety of a levee, which may be broken into segments and managed by different districts. Multiple districts may operate a single system, and in rare instances a district may sponsor multiple levee systems.
Often, levees are sponsored by city or county agencies, not levee districts. Before merging data with FEMA, the Corps identified 81 entities as levee system sponsors. After the merger, the Corps identified 97 sponsors, plus 12 levees that had undefined or unknown sponsors.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette examined data on levee sponsors from the Corps database and compared them with the commission's spreadsheet on levee districts. After using formulas to separate sponsors into multiple cells and correct for slight differences in spelling from each agency, the newspaper found that many of the levee districts reported to the commission did not match districts reported by the Corps, and vice versa.
That means many districts have been identified that were previously unknown to the Corps, and that districts known to the Corps either did not submit levee district reports to their county clerks or the county clerks did not submit the reports after receiving them.
The exact number of levee districts in Arkansas is still difficult to determine because some districts use slightly different names in each database. The total number of districts that were not duplicated on the Corps and state databases is 181. That includes government agency sponsors. The commission received reports on 89 levee districts not listed in the Corps' data. The Corps identified 92 levee districts and government sponsors not found in the commission's data.
Benefield said he can tell that some districts have not filed reports because of gaps in the numbered improvement districts. For example, there may be districts 3 and 6 but no districts 4 and 5 listed in a county.
"We would assume there are districts that aren't reporting," he said.
"The county clerk would have the authority over someone who did not file, not the Natural Resources Commission," Benefield said.
Not all counties are represented in the commission's database, and it's unknown whether all counties have levees.
Alan King, president of Improvement Districts Inc., said some residents simply don't want to revive dormant levee districts.
He's tried to revive one on the east side of Pulaski County, along the Arkansas River from the Port Authority down to the Jefferson County line, but landowners were not interested.
That part of the levee, called the Woodson levee, is considered "unacceptable" by the Corps and protects mostly farms, King said. The upper portion, the Fourche Island Drainage District No. 2 levee, meets standards and protects the Little Rock Port Authority, among other properties.
King said that just because a levee is off the radar of government officials doesn't necessarily mean that no one is keeping up with it. Farmers usually do things to shore up their nearby levees, even if those levees don't meet federal standards, he said.
"They don't want their property to flood [any] more than anyone else does," King said.
Lonoke County has paid for some of the repairs to the Big Ditch levee in Humnoke.
Humnoke Mayor Emma Morris said the levee is not part of any district that she knows of. Amanda Adaire, director of community development for the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District, said she thinks the levee used to be run by an improvement district, but she isn't certain of that or of who built the levee.
The development district worked with the city and the county to apply for a $1.2 million Delta Regional Authority grant to fix the levee and build flood protections around Humnoke, according to Adaire. The county promised $100,000 to match the grant, she said. New, better-compacting dirt that holds up longer has been placed in the breached part of the levee.
Online real estate records show that the two parcels of land where the levee breached have been sold numerous times since 2004. One parcel has been sold 12 times since 2004, and the other seven times since 2005.
Both are currently owned by Prairie Woods LLC of Little Rock. That business is owned by Thomas Hodges, and the parcels were deeded to the company by Thomas Hodges and Mark Lee in February, according to property records. Prairie Woods LLC was incorporated in November and is based in a house owned by a revocable trust in Hodges' name near the Little Rock Country Club.
Hodges said he bought the land in Lonoke County for duck hunting and deeded it to Prairie Woods, his duck club. Lee is a partner in Prairie Woods LLC, Hodges said.
Hodges said he thinks he knows who built the levee, but he doesn't have any documentation on it. He searched courthouse records and couldn't find anything related to "Big Ditch" levee, which he said runs for miles past his property.
Rapert said he has not seen the commission's database on levee districts that has been compiled since his legislation was passed, but he reiterated his hope that the list will give officials a better idea of what districts are out there and how the state could better prepare for flooding.
Benefield said the commission is collecting the reports and oversees loans and grants that can go to eligible districts for levee repairs and maintenance.
Beyond that, he said, "our authority ... is really limited."
The commission plans to work with the Corps to "catalog and characterize" the state's levees.
The Corps, meanwhile, can inspect new levees and add levee-safety evaluations to its database. The agency is working to identify new levees.
The Corps has funding for that work only through Sept. 30. Congress has not approved a fiscal 2019 budget, and President Donald Trump did not include such funding in his proposed budget last spring, Corps officials in Little Rock said.
Elmo Webb, levee safety program manager for the Corps in Little Rock, said he has three levees that he hopes to inspect with what funding remains.