Offutt flooding

The end of the Offutt Air Force Base runway under floodwater on March 17, 2019. 

It shouldn’t have taken five years for the Army Corps of Engineers to approve a permit to bolster the levees near Offutt Air Force Base, Rep. Don Bacon says.

Bacon wants the corps to streamline its processes. He said he’d like to see changes requiring that as part of any infrastructure package in front of Congress.

“I want to be an advocate for forcing bureaucrats to find a way to reduce the red tape, and I’m happy to do that through legislation,” Bacon, a Republican, told The World-Herald.

The upgrades to the levees are set to cost about $42 million. After the corps approved the upgrades — but before construction had started — the March floods caused up to $1 billion in damage to the base.

The work is on track to begin soon, and a groundbreaking ceremony is planned Tuesday morning in Bellevue.

Bacon’s 2nd Congressional District covers most of the Omaha metro area but not Offutt. He was the commander of the Offutt-based 55th Wing during 2011 flooding.

The application for the levees was submitted in 2013 and approved in 2018. Bacon called that length of time “ludicrous.”

Bacon wants to see the federal and state governments work together so that applicants have to submit only one permit. And he wants the corps to explore other ways to streamline the process.

Both the corps and the Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District agree that the years-long process involved much back-and-forth, with the corps requesting technical information about the proposed levees and the NRD trying repeatedly to provide it.

“The process is so detailed and technical that it takes that long,” said NRD general manager John Winkler.

The corps and NRD also agree that the new levees — 2 to 3 feet higher than the current ones — would not have totally prevented flooding at Offutt.

But according to corps modeling, they would have most likely held back the floods for about six hours and potentially reduced the area affected by floodwater.

The corps has done some streamlining already.

New guidance requires corps officials processing applications to give permission for a project and issue the permit at the same time, whereas before those two things happened consecutively.

Also, the guidance says the corps’ initial review should take only up to 30 days, at which point questions are sent back to the applicant. Once the final complete application is submitted, the corps has 90 days to issue a permit.

In this particular case, however, corps officials said the delay resulted from the NRD submitting an incomplete application.

And corps officials say that in a similar case, there could be a delay on the applicant end again.

In the corps’ review of the project, it also found some problems on the corps’ end that delayed the project.

One was a government shutdown in 2013, when Congress couldn’t agree on a budget, and another was a year when the corps ran out of funding for such reviews.

The third was that communication could have been improved, said Larry Janis, chief of recreation and natural resources branch in the corps’ operations division.

Corps officials said the Offutt levees proposal is one of the more complex projects that has come in front of the corps in this area. The corps is charged with assessing whether projects are “injurious to the public” or transfer risk to someone else.

“Are you increasing flood risks to someone across the river or upstream or downstream?” said Lowell Blankers, levee safety program manager.

So the application included not just specifications but also data such as hydraulics modeling.

But Bacon said no matter how complicated the process, it should go faster.

“In America, we should not accept what we’ve got right now,” Bacon said.

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