PUEBLO, Colo. - A plan by the federal government to certify flood levees along the Arkansas River could help downtown area residents avoid paying expensive flood insurance.
The levees have never required certification by the Federal Emergency Management Agency before, but the agency has become more strict about the matter since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
FEMA expects to release updated maps this fall indicating which areas of the city are in a flood plain, which would require property owners in those areas -- some for the first time -- to obtain flood insurance.
Such a change would primarily affect the downtown area, which currently is not designated a flood plain because of levees, the Pueblo Reservoir and other flood control measures taken after the historic flood of 1921.
"I think the effects of (that) would be substantial," said Joseph Koncilja, an attorney in downtown Pueblo who also owns several buildings including the Pueblo Depot.
"A lot of people who don't own property don't understand the ramifications. It would be more difficult to get financing, get insurance and to find tenants because you'd have to pass that expense on to the tenants."
However, two sources directly involved in the situation assured residents that FEMA will not change any flood plain designations as long as work continues to repair the 90-year-old levees to meet FEMA standards.
"They're going to leave everything the way it is right now," said Rick Kidd of the Pueblo Conservancy District, and agency that formed after the 1921 flood to build and maintain the levees.
"My understanding is if there is a change, residents won't be obligated to buy flood insurance for at least a year," said County Commissioner Buffie McFadyen.
Kidd said the levees need around $12 million in repairs.
"There are voids behind the concrete facing," he said. "In some areas, it appears the railroad has encroached into our levee and dug some dirt out. That decreased the (river) bank's stability."
The repair costs will be paid by a fee added to the property tax bills of county residents. City residents who live in a flood plain pay the highest fee, around $106.
"For everyone else, the fee ranges from $7 to $10," McFadyen said. "That includes me in Pueblo West where it hardly ever floods. But we all owe it to ourselves to protect downtown from flooding. That's important to us -- culturally, economically and historically."
Levees along Fountain and Wild Horse creeks in Pueblo also require FEMA certification.
McFadyen said once the levees receive FEMA certification, she hopes FEMA will be open to removing the flood plain designation for Colorado City, Rye and other county areas at much less flooding risk than downtown.
McFadyen and Kidd said building the levees after the 1921 flood was so important to Pueblo that it agreed to accept state funds in return for support of building the Moffat Tunnel west of Denver.
The deal cost Pueblo the opportunity to become a major railroad hub, they said.
"The 1921 flood devastated downtown," McFadyen said. "We can't ever let something like that happen again."