A levee that protects a Macon sewer plant and Central City Park from floodwaters is getting a serious cleanup on the eve of a federal inspection.
The levee, about 5 1/2 miles long, was declared “minimally acceptable” but given certification last year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Macon and Bibb County officials hope to continue that certification, and work crews were finishing work this week after three months of labor.
Much of the levee runs through swampy ground, where trees, brush and grass can grow quickly. This year’s work has focused on clearing a path 15 feet from the base, or toe, of the levee on both sides — meaning uncounted numbers of trees were felled to keep the levee intact. Trees on the levee itself were removed last year in an expensive process. Trees, when uprooted in a storm, can leave gaping holes in the levee structure.
Bibb County Engineer Ken Sheets said the 15-foot cleared swaths are necessary for tighter corps requirements. But they’ll have the bonus of making maintenance work easier, because nearly all of it will be able to be mowed faster with heavy equipment instead of bringing in workers with string trimmers to work around trees and fences and other obstacles. The city and county try to clear the levee two or three times a year.
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“We don’t have the resources to mow it more often than that,” said Bill Causey, Macon’s engineering manager. “The same guy that’s cutting grass on the streets is cutting grass on the levee.”
Though Macon is responsible for the levee, Bibb County has been splitting the costs since at least 1994, County Engineer Ken Sheets said. The county expects to spend about $50,000 before the Aug. 12 corps inspection.
In some places, that 15 feet of cleared space on both sides of the levee simply isn’t possible. On the side nearest Brosnan Yard, an old brick company pond almost laps at the base of the levee. Sheets said he’s waiting for the Corps of Engineers, which regulates the levee, to tell him if the trees between the pond and the levee need to come out.
Sheets said the levee was built about 1947, in places over an earlier levee. It was designed to survive a 100-year storm, the kind of storm that has a 1 percent chance of happening each year. The levee is the same height as it was, but development upstream means more water flows into rivers faster — forests absorb water more than parking lots — so the levee no longer could withstand that 100-year storm, officials said. Sheets wonders if an expansion in height and width will be needed in the future.
The levee’s toughest challenge came with Tropical Storm Alberto in 1994, which sent stormwaters through a breach and left water higher than some parts of the levee. The levee blew out near what’s now a Macon Iron facility, in a spot where the levee and Interstate 16 come close together. The water rushed through with so much power it carried away containers of scrap steel, said Keith Braswell, the county engineer’s representative on levee matters.
Though the industrial area east of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard isn’t nearly as busy as it was 60 years ago, the levee there still shields important businesses. Brosnan Yard is screened by the main levee, as are the city’s landfill, two brick companies, a Macon Iron facility, a restaurant and other smaller businesses, Central City Park and Luther Williams Field.
The most critical item is a Macon Water Authority sewage plant, one of only two in Bibb County. Ray Shell, the authority’s assistant executive director, said levee certification means that, if the plant gets flooded, the authority can get disaster funding.
“The potential damage there could be in the millions of dollars,” Shell said. “It wouldn’t be unusual if that plant were completely flooded to cost $5 million to bring it back. That would not be an unreasonable number at today’s prices.”
Inspectors may spend several days in August walking the levee’s miles and reviewing records. Local officials expect a written levee inspection report in September. By then, Sheets said, the grass lining the levee will have grown high.
“That area’s in a swamp, and that vegetation grows in a hurry,” Sheets said.