FAIRBANKS - Fairbanks is paying more this year to clean up the Tanana River levee than it has in the previous two decades combined.
Work crews are felling trees and clearing brush across the entire 21-mile levee system, which separates Fairbanks from the Tanana River. A different crew has already removed dozens of beaver dams from three major drainage channels, and the Fairbanks North Star Borough expects it might also need to patch spots along the levee's 10-foot-tall wall that have sunk since it was built in the 1970s.
Without that work, the Federal Emergency Management Agency could wind up labeling much of Fairbanks as officially flood-prone - a change that could leave the community paying millions more, collectively, for individual flood insurance plans in the future.
The borough, which has been responsible for maintaining the levee since 1987, is working under a deadline. It hopes to prove the levee is ready to handle a major flood before federal emergency managers publish new flood-zone maps for Fairbanks. The mapping project is under way.
Fairbanks isn't alone. Waterfront communities across the country are taking similar looks at their respective levees. The efforts are compounded by a stricter set of maintenance rules put in place after Hurricane Katrina smashed levees in New Orleans in 2005.
The borough has hired the Corps of Engineers as a partner as it spends close to $1.5 million to comb the levee of brush and trees.
Borough Mayor Jim Whitaker said the borough sensed it was on its own when it came time to pay for the project and is dipping into the taxpayer-supported general fund for money. Bob Shefchik, the borough's chief of staff, said the work will help protect against the type of damaging floods that hit parts of the Midwest this summer.
All told, the project amounts to the biggest tuneup of the levee system in years.
Randy Johnson, a deputy public works official, said the borough had routinely set aside money each year to maintain and inspect the levee.
The top of the 10-foot-tall levee wall is broad enough for someone to drive a truck down. It works as a barrier to protect the developed community from the Tanana River, which has occasionally spilled its banks and flooded town - most notoriously in 1967.
The levee also sprouts finger-like channels that extend south toward the river before curving west. Water that makes its way over or seeps underneath the levee wall during flooding is channeled by one of three drainage ditches back toward either the Chena or Tanana rivers.