Coral Springs Levee
The East Coast Protective Levee, which stretches from Lake Okechobee to the Florida Bay at the western edge Coral Springs along the Sawgrass Expressway looking south towards Sunrise and Weston. Concerns are growing that South Florida's levees that keep the Everglades from flooding communities along the coast are not built to standards put into place after Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans under water. The area along the Sawgrass has been especially vulnerable to seepage. ((Joe Cavaretta, Sun Sentinel) / June 1, 2009)

New flood control concerns are surfacing about the 60-year-old, earthen levee that keeps the Everglades from swamping South Florida communities spread across former wetlands.

The Broward County portion of the East Coast Protective Levee fails to meet certification standards for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to a new engineering assessment of that 38-mile section of the levee.

That could trigger costly repairs to get the levee certified or risk increased flood insurance rates for Broward residents who live inWestonCoral Springs and other western communities.

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This comes a year and half after the Army Corps of Engineers in a separate review considered the Palm Beach County section of the levee "minimally acceptable" — the middle rung of the corps' new rating system. That triggered ongoing improvements to beef up the structure to try to avoid a failing grade.

The corps' updated rating of the entire East Coast Protective Levee is expected in early 2011. Corps officials on Friday said they were not ready to determine whether the structure meets new post-Hurricane Katrina standards.

The South Florida Water Management District maintains the more than 100-mile-long levee, which stretches along the Everglades water conservation areas from northern Palm Beach Countythrough Broward County and Miami-Dade County.

The district insists that the levee remains safe and improvements are in the works to address any federal concerns about the levee's ability to withstand hurricane winds and large, drenching tropical storms.

"The levee is in good shape. There is no credible reason to believe there is any risk of failure," said Alex Damian, the district's assistant deputy executive director for operations and maintenance. "There are some areas where they have noticed higher levels of seepage [through the levee] than normal."

To at least temporarily avoid increased insurance costs for Broward communities, the South Florida Water Management District plans to ask FEMA to designate the earthen levee a "provisionally accredited levee."

That would allow more time for costly improvements to shore up the levee and bring it into compliance, before projected flood zones and insurance costs are affected.

How much it would cost to bring the levee into compliance depends on the engineering review, expected to be finalized in January. Past district estimates called for spending more than $8 million through 2014 to meet federal levee standards.

FEMA officials said the agency supports the district's effort to get a provisional rating for the Broward section of the levee.

"They will have two years to bring the levee up to standard and fix the problems they have identified," said Mary Hudak, spokeswoman for FEMA's southeastern region. "The importance of this process is to be sure people are aware of their flood risk."

Broward County communities are in the midst of working with FEMA for the first update of the county's flood zone maps in 14 years. Public meetings are planned in April to discuss potential changes and how they could affect who needs to buy flood insurance and at what cost.

If after the two-year provisional period the levee still doesn't meet federal standards, more of Broward Countywould be included in areas considered at a higher risk for flooding, which increases insurance costs. Those communities near the levee include Weston, SunriseParkland, Coral Springs, Southwest RanchesMiramar,Tamarac and Pembroke Pines.

Tropical Storm Fay's prolonged drenching in August 2008 exposed vulnerable sections of the East Coast Protective Levee along the Sawgrass Expressway in Broward County, where increased amounts of water seeped through the earthen structure and raised concerns about erosion that could lead to a breach.

The corps' concerns about the Palm Beach County section led to stepped up measures to cut back vegetation that grows along the edges of the levee and gets in the way of inspections and maintenance. The district also added reinforcing berms to some sections of the levee.

Some work was done to reinforce the levee after Tropical Storm Fay and that effort needs to be extended to more of the Broward sections of the structure, according to engineering consultants hired by the district to perform the evaluation of the levee.

The recently completed six-month engineering review of the Broward section of the levee included drilling, surveying, testing and reviewing years of maintenance records.

The engineering consulting firm hired by the district, Lakeland-based BCI Engineers and Scientists, found some portions needing improvements throughout the county. Most of the problem areas were at the northern end, according to Leslie Bromwell, one of the consultants who led the review of the levee.

"It was well built for the time it was built. … There are some aspects of it that do not come up to current day standards," Bromwell said. "We can't certify that it will perform satisfactorily during a storm event."

The East Coast Protective Levee is part of 600 miles of levees south of Lake Okeechobee as well as a network of pumps and canals that guard against flooding of farms and sprawling communities on land that was once part of the Everglades.

Lime rock, shell and soil dug from the edge of the Everglades make up the levee, built in the 1950s.

What was considered sturdy construction in the 1950s doesn't meet current federal levee standards.

Levee safety gained renewed national attention after levees in New Orleans failed during Hurricane Katrina.

The New Orleans flood prompted a nationwide review of 14,000 miles of federally monitored levees — a fraction of the 100,000 miles of locally maintained levees across the country.

The Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency both play a role in a nationwide effort to toughen levee standards. That includes more levee inspections, maintaining an updated levee database and imposing uniform levee safety standards.

"The inventory is huge. That's quite an undertaking," Steve Duba, the corps' chief of engineering for the district that includes Florida, said about the new standards and tougher inspections. "It's much more detailed and comprehensive work."

FEMA's provisional designation for levees was created to avoid creating an undue burden on communities that learn their levees don't meet federal standards when flood zone maps are changed. It is intended for levees that are "reasonably expected to continue to provide protection."

The FEMA certification standard would be applied the Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County sections of the levee when the flood maps for those areas are updated.

Once FEMA grants the provisional status and allows a two-year window for making improvements, there are no extensions beyond that.

When the two-year provisional accreditation period is up for a levee, the process can begin to redo flood zone maps. If the levee still doesn't meet federal standards, the area considered most at risk for flooding would be expanded, making flood insurance a requirement for more homebuyers and increases the cost for others who want to add flood coverage.

Flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program is administered by FEMA. The average flood insurance policy costs less than $570 a year. But policies in areas considered at high-risk of flooding can cost more than $2,000 a year, depending on the amount of coverage.

FEMA recommends that all Florida homeowners have flood insurance coverage even if they don't live in what are considered high-risk areas.

To beef up the levee, the district plans to build a 25-foot berm made of crushed limestone along the outside base of some portions of the structure. That would lessen the seepage of water through the earthen levee, which can lead to erosion and a breach.

In addition to the berm, the district is: increasing inspections; cutting back vegetation along the levee to make it easier to inspect and maintain; and adding monitoring equipment to signal when too much water is seeping through and raising erosion concerns.

The final version of the levee engineering report, expected in January, will determine how much more work is needed to meet FEMA standards, according to the district.

Upgrades needed for the levee come at a time when the district already faces a budget strain from an economic downturn that has lessened property tax revenue and led to cuts in state funding. In addition, the district already faces a backlog of maintenance needs for the larger flood control system that stretches from Orlando to the Keys.

The district has a $1 billion budget and spends about $60 million a year on operations and maintenance upgrades. So far this year there is $1.8 million budgeted to improve the East Coast Protective Levee, though that could be increased depending on the findings of the engineering report, Damian said.

"We are not going to compromise on that," Damian said. "We will do what needs to be done."

Andy Reid can be reached at or 561-228-5504.