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Tulsa County Levee In Danger Of Losing FEMA Accreditation

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The levee protects Sand Springs and areas of west Tulsa. Its federal status protects property owners from being forced to pay federal flood insurance. The levee protects Sand Springs and areas of west Tulsa. Its federal status protects property owners from being forced to pay federal flood insurance.
Levee Commissioner Todd Kilpatrick. Levee Commissioner Todd Kilpatrick.
Epic floods flushed out Sand Springs and areas of West Tulsa back in the mid-1980s. Epic floods flushed out Sand Springs and areas of West Tulsa back in the mid-1980s.
TULSA, Oklahoma -

A Green Country levee, that protects thousands of people, is so outdated it's on the verge of losing its FEMA accreditation.

The levee protects Sand Springs and areas of west Tulsa. Its federal status protects property owners from being forced to pay federal flood insurance.

Epic floods flushed out Sand Springs and areas of West Tulsa back in the mid-1980s. And county leaders say if the levees aren't renovated, there's a very real threat that it could happen again.

The Levee District of Tulsa County snakes along 20 miles of the Arkansas River. It was built in the '40s. Clay pipes and porous relief wells are buried beneath the green berms.

"That's supposed to relieve that hydrostatic pressure when the water gets up on the levee," said Levee Commissioner Todd Kilpatrick.

The pipes are part of a system that protects more than $2 billion worth of infrastructure, including homes, businesses and refineries. The levees help regulate water levels along the river.

"They're old, they're broken, they're misaligned, a lot of them are buried or have disappeared, a lot of them have been taken out over these 70 years," Kilpatrick said.

During the rainy seasons, the upstream Keystone Dam, is sometimes forced to release water.

We'd need a lot more rain to bring the river to flood stage, but if that time comes, Kilpatrick said the levees won't be able to withstand the pressure.

"So, when you would need them the most is when they're going to fail you."

It's been almost three decades since a major flood drowned the city of Sand Springs and parts of west Tulsa.

But Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith said, just because it's been a long time, doesn't mean it can't happen again.

"They've been breached before. We know that's going to happen again if it's a truly high water event," Keith said. "The experts tell us, in any high water event, they're likely not going to hold."

The system is so old, if something breaks, there are no stores that carry parts to repair it, which means workers have to troubleshoot and manufacture their own parts. While some improvements have been made, they're not enough to meet standards made by FEMA or The Army Corps of Engineers.

FEMA has warned the county, if it doesn't start to make changes, it could lose its FEMA accreditation.

Kilpatrick said, if that happens, it could be costly for those who live along the levee, because property owners would then be forced to pay for federal flood insurance.

Keith said the county needs federal support to repair the levee, but in the meantime, she said the county needs to chip in.

"Tulsa County needs to come up with--I'd like to raise anywhere from five to 10 million, just get this project moving forward, which tells FEMA, 'Yes, we're taking this serious. Please don't de-certify our levees because we're working on it,'" she said.

The FEMA accreditation expires in August, but the county is going request a two-year extension.

It will cost the county about $1.4 million for the county to study and document what repairs need to be made, which is what Keith said must be done in order to keep the FEMA support.

But Keith said a complete overhaul of the levee system could cost as much as $26 million.

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