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Washington Commissioners Seek To Recover After Levee Break
Updated May 5, 2013 1:05 AM | Filed under: WBIW News
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(WASHINGTON) - It has been nearly a year since the Bennington Levee breached, flooding thousands of acres of farmland and threatening area homes. (Herald Times)

The yearlong process of determining the cause, and who should pay for the damages, may have taken its first steps.

Members of the Daviess County Commissioners announced Monday they will seek to recover damages caused to the Bennington Levee through litigation. The suit names Knox County farmer and Indiana Farm Bureau president Don Villwock, Randall Bowman and Shepherd Construction, LLC, as parties involved in the action.

While the filing date for the suit is not yet known, County Attorney Grant E. Swartzentruber said he expected it could take place before the end of the week in a Daviess County court.

A stipulated amount of damages has not been set, pending the unknown cost of repair work. Earlier estimates have varied from $1.1 and $2.5 million.

A statement released to the press by Swartzentruber said: "The Board of Commissioners of Daviess County has authorized its counsel, Bruce A. Smith, to file litigation against Donald Villwock, Randall Bowman, and Shepherd Construction, LLC in order to recover damages caused to the Bennington Levee as a result of two breaches to the levee which occurred in March 2011. In addition, the Board of Commissioners has authorized the filing of a Declaratory Judgment Action, naming the Bennington Levee Committee and the U.S. Corps of Engineers as necessary parties, in order to determine what steps need to be taken in order to return the Bennington Levee to active status with the U.S. Corps of Engineers."

The action would seek future certification of the levee to be overseen by the committee and the corps. That could leave future levee maintenance in the hands of the committee. The Bennington Levee broke in early March 2011. The break started at a width of about 25 feet, but expanded to nearly 100 feet within a few days. Properties from County Roads 500N to 150N were affected.

The levee, located between the White River and Prairie Creek levee, acted as a basin, collecting floodwater. The break occurred by the levee being "undermined," or having water pushed under the levee rather than breaching the top of the 12-foot-tall, seven-foot-wide structure, according to Daviess County Emergency Manager Paul Goss.

At the time of the event, Goss said it appeared dirt was eroded underneath the structure, leaving a hole. The breach flooded an estimated 3,000 and 4,000 acres of farmland. Some residences had been in danger, with access to the property unavailable. Goss noted elevation didn't change for a 2-mile stretch in the flooding, leaving the area in a plate-like situation. About 4 feet of water covered fields.

Commissioner and county council members held several levee meetings to consider possible repair possibilities and cost. Early estimates for a temporary fix were set at $1.5 million, with an anticipated additional $1 million to follow for a permanent fix.

The temporary fix was suggested to allow farmers quicker access to allow flooded farm land to drain more quickly before the start of growing seasons. Commissioners were afraid that time necessary for a permanent fix could write off the 2011 growing season.

At the same time, they were concerned that not fixing the levee could adversely affect constituents. At the time of the discussion, a temporary fix would have been completed in early May. Additional rains were expected, and local corn growers expressed a concern that water would not recede in time to allow a planted crop to survive any additional flooding.

Local government officials contacted U.S. Sens. Dan Coats and Richard Lugar, along with U.S. Eighth District Representative Dr. Larry Bucshon, seeking help from the Natural Resource Conservation Service with funding for levee repairs.

Ind. State Rep. Mark Messmer was also consulted. Representatives of Earth Exploration, Indianapolis, reviewed the levee in late March 2011, and commissioners later voted to have the company contracted for a permanent repair.

The company was to bring preliminary plans and cost estimates to the county for consideration. Local repair cost funds were considered by county council members, but they noted rainy day funds set aside contained only $1.5 million -- a million short of the estimated expenses.

County officials eventually decided to place cuts in the levee to allow water to flow back into the White River and away from homes. The cuts in the levee allowed water to flow back into the river at numerous points. Water rescue teams from as far south as Posey County and north as Vigo County helped area firefighters, sheriff's and state Department of Natural Resource crews.

But, repair work for the levee was delayed as local officials attempted to try to find ways to fund the project. Levee Committee Member Steve Myers approached the council recently about seeking a partial loan from the county, to allow levee members an opportunity to begin work. Myers said the committee received about $35,000 from tax levies annually, but did not have the means to do the work alone.

At that meeting, Myers said he anticipated the repair work could cost $1.1 million. However, County Auditor Gail Doades told council members that such loans may be illegal, according to the state Department of Local Government Finance, and the proposal was dropped.

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