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Corps may have squeezed a lemon levee in Alamosa

Posted: Monday, Feb 9th, 2009

Photo by Ruth Heide The Army Corps of Engineers that designed Alamosa’s river levee is now telling City of Alamosa officials the levee may not have been constructed correctly. Of particular concern during a Corps inspection were large trees along the river dike.

City may have to pay to fix it


ALAMOSA — The Army Corps of Engineers that constructed a new river levee system through Alamosa a decade ago is now telling the City of Alamosa the levee may be flawed - and the city might have to pay to fix it.

Alamosa City Manager Nathan Cherpeski brought the situation to the city council’s attention during his weekly Friday update and commented further about it on Monday. He said although the Corps designed the current levee, and it was built according to the Corps’ design, the Corps is now telling the city the levee was constructed incorrectly.

The big problem with the levee is the tree growth on the land side of the levee, Cherpeski said. He pointed out that the Corps left many large trees in place when it constructed the new levee in 1997 but is now apparently blaming the city for the potential structural problems the trees could cause to the levee.

“These are big, big trees and they are saying they shouldn’t have been allowed to grow on the levee,” he said. He said the trees that the Corps sees as a potential problem did not grow up in the last 12 years. Some are 100 years old or so, he estimated. “They are accusing us like we let them grow there,” he said.

The trees were there when the Corps built the levee, and the Corps even constructed the levee around them in places, Cherpeski said. “There are some times when the levee jogs around trees outside where it was supposed to be built.”

Cherpeski said the Corps sent the city a new vegetation management standard adopted in 2008, and the city’s levee does not meet that standard. A Corps inspector raised the concerns with the city, Cherpeski said, and suggested the city should remove the offending trees. The Corps’ old maintenance rules comprised 5 pages but the new rules are 70 pages long, he added. “With these new rules our levee built in 1997 appears to not meet standard.”

Cherpeski said removal of the trees would not only be costly - perhaps requiring reconstruction of the levee in places - but would be aesthetically and emotionally painful for those landowners on whose properties the trees reside. “Nobody likes to cut down significant trees and some of the trees they sent us pictures of are three feet or more in diameter,” he said. “Some of these trees if we take them out we have to rebuild the levee.”

Cherpeski added that it is the city attorney’s initial position that the city’s easements with landowners along the river do not give the city authority to cut down people’s trees. Tree removal might require some court action, he suggested.

He said he was not sure what the Corps’ concern was regarding the trees because the trees are all on the land side of the levee, not on the river side. If they were located along the river itself, they could wash the levee out, he said. The Corps’ concern may be that the roots extend all the way through, however, he said.

Cherpeski guessed that the Katrina catastrophe in the New Orleans area occurring after Alamosa’s levee was reconstructed might have something to do with the changes in standards and current concerns about Alamosa’s levee.

“We are trying to understand what their concern is now because obviously it wasn’t when they built there,” he said. “They built it without taking them out and it’s been good all these years. Now it’s ‘we didn’t do it right and it’s your problem now’.”

Cherpeski said he was concerned that Alamosa taxpayers might have to pay for major levee repairs. He said although the Corps put in a large share of the original levee construction cost, the city paid about a million dollars for it. He added if the Corps gave the city “a lemon,” it would not seem fair that the city would have to shoulder the cost of fixing the problem now.

He said the city paid its share with good faith intentions and should not have to pay for a mistake made by the Corps a dozen years ago. “They built it, and they are saying it wasn’t built right. Since they left the trees during construction we are not sure why our citizens should bear the cost of correcting this issue.”

Cherpeski said the levee was actually designed in 1987 but not constructed until 1997, and Alamosa experienced growth during that time but the levee design was not updated. He said the engineer who originally designed the levee is still with the Corps of Engineers-Albuquerque district, so the city will try to get that person in the same room with city officials and current Corps staff who are now saying the levee is unacceptable.

Alamosa falls under the jurisdiction of the Albuquerque Corps of Engineers office, Cherpeski explained. He said he is hoping for a meeting soon and a resolution fairly quickly, within the next couple of weeks if possible. He said the Corps invited the city officials to a meeting in Washington state, but Alamosa officials are hoping to set up a meeting closer to home. Cherpeski said he would like for the Corps staff members to come to Alamosa and actually walk the levee with the city staff and council to show where the problems are.

Cherpeski said the City of Alamosa is responsible for maintaining the levee and city crews routinely fix problem areas such as locations where people driving all-terrain vehicles have caused damage to the levee. “Those come up every year. We fix that stuff. The big issue is the trees.”

Another situation creating concern with the Corps is access. Cherpeski said people living along the levee put up fences, something they are allowed to do. However, landowners’ easements require them to allow the city and Corps access to the levee, so residents will have to install gates.

“We have to maintain it. We don’t mind the maintenance part,” Cherpeski said. “We are just not excited about having to reconstruct something they built incorrectly.”

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