Levees and the era of neglect

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

A column with the word “levees” in the headline probably won’t attract a record number of readers. Unless you live in a floodplain, they’re just big piles of dirt, right?

Well, not really.

The recent floods have drawn attention to Arkansas’ deteriorating levees. Really, “forgotten” is the better word. As reported in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sunday and elsewhere, it turns out that, in many cases, no one’s really in charge of maintaining them, or even caring whether or not they exist. They were built when the need was obvious, such as after the Great Flood of 1927, when the overflowing Mississippi River submerged much of the state. Local boards were set up to maintain them, and legislation was passed to ensure their independence. The board members – those with memories of those floods – grew old and died or for whatever reason stopped paying attention. Those big piles of dirt continued to function fine for decades – until, this past spring, when at least a couple of them didn’t.

A levee is just like anything else in that it becomes less effective over time unless it is maintained. Dirt erodes. Vegetation overgrows. Mankind intrudes. As the Democrat-Gazette reported, one levee nearly failed because someone once dug a hole at its base for a construction project.

This spring was a wake-up call, so legislators are scheduled to hold hearings June 24. It helps that one of them, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, saw his property submerged under water during the flooding. The issues will be the same as they often are in a democracy: Should someone be in charge, and if so, who? And, where will the money come from?

Were this only about piles of dirt, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it, but Arkansas’ levee situation is part of a larger story – in fact, one of today’s biggest.

For centuries, this was the land of sacrificial investment. Immigrants came here knowing it might take a generation for the family to really enjoy the benefits. Wars were fought where more than just a few contributed. Railroads were laid. Roads and bridges were built. Arkansas taxpayers in the early 20th century paid extra so that’s today’s taxpayers would have an extra sturdy State Capitol to conduct the people’s business.

Contrast that with today, when it’s way too much about the present, and we’ll let our children fend for themselves. The obvious example is the $18 trillion national debt – equivalent to $57,000 for every American man, woman and child – almost all of which has been created since 1980.

But there are other less obvious ways in which we’re passing on the costs of the things we take for granted because of misplaced priorities and waste. For example, the nation isn’t properly maintaining its aging transportation infrastructure, much less making significant improvements. Instead of making tough choices and really addressing the deficiencies, Congress patched a hole in the highway budget this past year partly through an accounting gimmick that borrows from the next 10 years. That money has been spent, future taxpayers will be paying, and yet the Highway Trust Fund is nearly insolvent again. Meanwhile, plumbing systems in many cities are aging. In some cases, they’re more than a century old. Few care as long as it goes away when they flush, but someone will have to fix those pipes eventually.

Americans often assign names and characteristics to generations: the baby boomers, Generation X, the Millennials, but it won’t take long for future Americans to lump us all into one category. We think of the 1700s as the age of exploration and the American Revolution, the 1800s as the era of expansion and the Civil War, and the 1900s as the century of American victory and ascendancy. I fear they’ll someday say ours was the Era of Neglect.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We’re still capable of investing. Maybe this recent scare will result in a renewed emphasis on levee maintenance. Everyone recognizes it costs much less to maintain a big pile of dirt than it does to rebuild a flooded community. Meanwhile, Congress at least recognizes the need to invest in the nation’s transportation infrastructure, even if it hasn’t figured out how. Sometimes those old plumbing pipes actually do get fixed.

I’m struggling to come up with something positive to say about the national debt. How about this? Americans have overcome worse.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t take the equivalent of a flood before we’ll try.

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