FEMA rules force removal of portion of levee in Oxbow


OXBOW, N.D. – A permanent levee here isn’t so permanent anymore, thanks to federal regulations that area officials describe as “impractical.”

Contractors hired by Cass County removed two sections of Oxbow’s levee this week, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency threatened “severe sanctions” if the county kept the levee intact.

“The unfortunate thing is Oxbow was just acting in common sense” by fortifying the levee, Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt said. “FEMA’s rules don’t make sense, but it is the law.”

Since 2009, Oxbow leaders had worked to turn an emergency levee along the Red River into a permanent fixture that would protect this town of 305 residents.

The levee was constructed on land bought out by Cass County. However, some of the buyouts were supplemented with dollars from FEMA, which meant any use of the land had to comply with FEMA’s rules.

Federal law prohibits permanent levees on land bought out with federal money, so FEMA officials demanded this spring that local leaders tear down pertinent sections of Oxbow’s levee.

Berndt said the county held off FEMA as long as it could but was denied an extension to work out a solution.

“Very threatening correspondence” from FEMA indicated the county would lose future federal aid if it didn’t comply, Berndt said.

“As unfortunate as the process is, and as impractical as it is, we didn’t really have any option on the matter,” Berndt said.

Oxbow Mayor Jim Nyhof said he’s disappointed with FEMA’s decision.

“There are certainly circumstances that merit consideration, and no consideration was given,” Nyhof said.

The gaps are only a fraction of the levee, so crews could fill them back in within a day if a flood threat arose, Berndt said.

“Ninety percent of the levee is still there, there are just a couple of spots where there are openings in it now,” Berndt said.

North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven introduced legislation last year that would give FEMA more flexibility in how its dollars are spent, including on permanent levees.

The Senate passed the legislation in January, and the bill is still being considered in the House.