If the Levee Breaks

Springfield seeks $40 million to repair a levee that protects tens of thousands of its citizens

Springfield’s 42nd Street Levee lowers flood risks for roughly one-third of the city’s population, serving as a barrier between the McKenzie River and 24,000 people and 7,500 buildings, according to the National Levee Database. Buildings include residential and commercial areas, police and fire departments and six schools, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) writes in a summary of its levee assessment. The levee also protects more than $4 billion in property value.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service constructed the mile-long levee in 1960 “to protect a large area of Springfield from McKenzie River flooding,” according to Eugene and Springfield’s 2020 Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan. The mound of earth is situated next to Springfield’s 42nd Street, with a concrete path running over it and the trees of the Weyerhaeuser-McKenzie Natural Area Park surrounding the river area. The Soil Conservation Service transferred levee ownership and maintenance responsibilities to the city of Springfield in 1983. 

Since its construction, the 42nd Street Levee contained floods from the McKenzie in 1964 and in 1996. 

But time passes, and federal safety standards change. More recently, officials from the city of Springfield and other local jurisdictions have been lobbying for funding to update the levee to current standards. The levee has structural deficiencies and doesn’t meet modern federal flood control standards. It will cost an estimated $40 million to protect the $4 billion worth of property — and the 24,000 lives — behind the leveed area.

Protecting the people of Springfield

Springfield’s emergency manager Ken Vogeney started looking into issues surrounding the 42nd Street Levee in 2013, according to Amber Fossen, the city’s public information officer. He began looking for federal funding and technical expertise in 2014. 

In 2017, the USACE approached Vogeney about doing an assessment of the levee. The report was part of a larger USACE initiative to get more levees added to the national database, says John Morgan, a public affairs specialist for the USACE’s Portland District. The USACE manages a number of dams and levees in the Willamette Valley.

The USACE completed its assessment in late 2019 and published a summary of the report in March 2020. The assessment found that the levee was in “minimally acceptable condition” and posed a moderate risk to the Springfield community. According to a 2020 letter from Springfield City Manager Nancy Newton to the USACE, the risk rating was “due in part to unknown foundation conditions, structural deficiencies and continuing unconstrained channel migration of the McKenzie River toward the Levee.”

The levee has been there for more than 60 years, Vogeney says, and it needs regular maintenance and upgrades.

“If the levee were to fail, the flood depths are anticipated to be shallow,” USACE wrote in its report, “but the water may be swift-moving near the point of levee failure, causing structural damage and potentially being life-threatening.”

Beyond the general maintenance needed to prevent structural failure, the levee doesn’t meet modern federal flood control standards. Vogeney says the levee must be raised roughly three feet — the height required to protect the potential floodplain from a “100-year flood,” or a flood that has a one percent chance of occurring each year. Currently, the top of the 42nd Street Levee is at the 100-year flood mark, meaning any water height greater than that will overcome the structure.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency created Springfield’s current 100-year flood maps in the 1980s, Vogeney says, and the last significant update to the maps came in 1999. Federal law requires FEMA to update flood maps every five years.

FEMA has updated inundation maps in localized areas, including the area of the Channel 6 canal in 2016. “But besides that, they have not done a new study since those originals,” Vogeney says. And those original maps didn’t identify the levee being overtopped as a potential risk. 

“Things have changed,” Vogeney says. “The ability to model more complex conditions exists now. So we’re waiting for that level of modeling to be able to occur.” He says Springfield has been working with FEMA on and off to revise inundation maps since 2008. But the project has been tabled, and he doesn’t know when those changes will actually go into effect.

If Springfield doesn’t raise the 42nd Street Levee before FEMA updates its flood maps, the city will have to classify the area the levee protects — a space including one-third of the city’s population — as a 100-year floodplain. The area spans from 42nd Street in the east to I-5 in the west. “That could be a substantial financial burden for those folks and could cause a lot of community angst over those issues,” Vogeney says.

Vogeney says anyone seeking a federal mortgage for their home in a floodplain is required to have flood insurance. Properties in floodplains are also subject to different construction standards; if a homeowner were to remodel or repair their homes, they might also have to raise the building so it sits one foot above the 100-year flood height for the area of the property. 

“It has some real, direct economic effects on people,” Vogeney says.

Migrating down the McKenzie

Gordon Grant, a research hydrologist for the U.S. Forest Service and courtesy professor at Oregon State University, says the McKenzie River has “two flavors” by the time it reaches Springfield. 

The first of these is groundwater. The McKenzie begins in the youngest part of the Cascade Mountain Range, Grant says, where rainfall sinks into the landscape’s porous rocks instead of running off. That water re-emerges as downstream springs that feed rivers like the McKenzie, Grant says in a video for the McKenzie River Discovery Center. “Because of that, they don’t get very high in the winter,” he says, “and they don’t get very low in the summer.” It’s a relatively even water flow throughout the year — and one that’s “very resilient” to large floods, he says.

Around McKenzie Bridge, though, a tributary called the South Fork McKenzie River joins the river. “The character of the river changes at that point,” Grant says, “and it becomes more susceptible to floods.”

In the Springfield area, the McKenzie River is a combination of its flood-resistant Cascade source and various tributaries with more “rapid runoff” characteristics. Grant says this means the river accumulates more of a “flashy” character, where the water “rapidly rises to a peak and then also fairly rapidly comes down from that peak.”

The biggest floods in the lower part of the McKenzie — and in the Willamette Valley — come during “rain on snow events,” Grant says. These occur when snowpack accumulates in the area, and then it rains. 

Grant says the Pacific Northwest’s biggest winter rainstorms — and those that cause the most flooding — are due to atmospheric rivers. Colloquially known as a “pineapple express,” atmospheric rivers can occur when tropical air travels across the Pacific Ocean and hits the West Coast. 

“You’ve got all this water lying around on the ground” in the form of snow, Grant says, “and you bring in this atmospheric river of warm, tropical air, full of moisture, full of rain.” The warm air melts the snow, and the influx of rain — Grant estimates that atmospheric rivers can lead to two or three consecutive days of two or three inches of rain — adds more water to the system.

Although climate change will likely reduce snowpack along the McKenzie River, Grant says he doesn’t know what the atmosphere is going to do. “It’s an active area of research,” he says. “What is likely to happen to atmospheric rivers under climate change? That’s a hot topic right now. And I would say the jury’s still out.” 

But he says there’s some evidence to suggest that the West Coast will see an increase in atmospheric rivers, which would lead to less flooding due to rain on snow events and more due to accumulated rainfall.

“Even so, the river remains a little bit flood-challenged because a lot of the watershed has this groundwater story going on,” Grant says.

Even during the 1964 flood, the largest recorded in Lane County, the McKenzie only reached a little over 75 percent of the levee’s height. But larger floods are still possible.

Still, Vogeney says, the bigger issue is channel migration, where over time the river’s channel moves laterally. 

He says the city of Springfield is taking monthly measurements of the river to track its movement, but historical maps of the 42nd Street area capture the full scope of the issue.

The sharp bend in the McKenzie near the intersection of 42nd Street and Marcola Road looks like a prime site for that migration, Grant says. “Rivers, in general, tend to cut on the outside of bends,” he says, “and they tend to deposit on the inside of bends.” That pattern — especially during major flood events, where faster-moving water exacerbates the issue — means the McKenzie is moving closer to the levee.

“Historical channel migration of the McKenzie River toward the levee suggests that future floods may cause further channel migration,” the USACE wrote in its assessment, “making the levee increasingly susceptible to erosion damage.”

Water districts at watch

“I can see it out my window,” says Jamie Porter, the superintendent of Rainbow Water District in Springfield. The utility company, which supplies water and fire protection to people living just outside Springfield, has its office on 42nd Street, adjacent to the levee. 

“If the levee doesn’t perform as expected, then we could see some impact from a high river level at our office,” Porter says, “So we are happy that it’s there and definitely want to see it working properly in the future.”

Although Rainbow Water District isn’t directly involved in levee repairs, he says the company has been kept up to date. The Water District and the Springfield Utility Board co-own a couple wells in the oxbow of the river, and construction on the McKenzie could temporarily restrict access to those wells. Porter says it’s a water source that the company mostly draws from in the summer, so Rainbow Water District might have to adjust where it draws water from based on the levee’s construction schedule.

Susan Fricke, a water resources and quality assurance supervisor at the Eugene Water and Electric Board, says EWEB has also been involved in updates regarding potential levee construction. Unlike SUB, which relies mostly on wells, EWEB draws its water supply from the McKenzie River. “EWEB supports infrastructure improvements that need to be made to keep the city of Springfield safe,” Fricke says in a statement to Eugene Weekly.

Lobbying for funds

Vogeney estimates the entire project — including analysis, design, construction, permitting, paperwork for levee certification and accreditation, flood control structures and dealing with environmental issues and channel migration — will come out to about $40 million. 

The United Front Partners of Lane County, a group of Lane County government officials who work collaboratively to lobby for federal funding, has included the 42nd Street Levee in its discussions since 2018, according to Fossen. 

The U.S. House of Representatives included the levee in the Water Resources and Development Act of December 2020. The legislation authorizes the USACE to complete a “feasibility study” on the structure, which will be used “to determine whether federal support is justified,” Fossen wrote in an email to EW. But funding for the specific USACE program that Congress authorized is competitive, Vogeney says, and the USACE wasn’t able to fund the program during its last budget cycle.

“I think projects like this sometimes tend to get overlooked,” says Val Hoyle, Oregon’s labor commissioner, a U.S. Congressional candidate and Springfield resident. “But it’s absolutely critical, not just for Springfield, but for our entire area.”

While the city waits for the study, Vogeney’s trying to do what he can with the resources he has.

“Yes, we’re lobbying through the United Front,” Vogeney says. “We’re also here at the local level. Over several years, we’re setting aside some money each year to begin our work on the levee independent of any federal analysis or funds. We’re really trying to leverage as many different resources and capabilities as we can.”

The city of Springfield has put aside about $500,000 for the 42nd Street Levee so far, with some of that money going toward staff who are currently working on the project.

On a national level, Rep. Peter DeFazio, whose seat Hoyle is running for, has been working to secure funding for the levee and other local projects through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. “I have, over the years, spent a lot of time working closely and communicating with Congressman DeFazio and his staff,” Hoyle says. “And I know that this has been a priority.”

In the meantime, Vogeney says, Springfield has applied for a grant with Lane County. The entities plan on using that money to create an emergency action plan for the levee. Along with the county and other community stakeholders, Vogeney says the city is working to develop emergency notification protocols, plan for evacuations and figure out how it can redirect water away from critical infrastructure. 

Vogeney says the United Front is including the 42nd Street Levee on its 2022 agenda and will continue to explore other avenues for funding.

Hoyle says she’s been working to bring attention to the project both locally and nationally — and that she’ll continue to do so if elected to Congress. She’s been in communication with Lane County officials and wants to bolster their message. “This isn’t saying, ‘Hey, look, what I can do,’” she says. “There are a whole lot of people who have been working on this for a long time.”

“I’m just adding my voice to those people who are doing the work,” Hoyle adds. “I think people need to know how important the project is.”

For Vogeney, time is of the essence. “It can take 10 years or more to get these types of projects designed, permitted and constructed,” Vogeney says. “We need a pretty good lead time to be able to actually put all that together and get it designed and done. And each year, there’s that risk of whether we will have that larger flood that could actually put the levee at risk or cause flooding.”

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