A new universe for local and regional environmental stories opened Oct. 27, 2011, when the National Levee Database went online.
Yes, levees make news — as New Orleans learned when levee failure after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city in 2005. While they have huge environmental and human impacts, they are often neglected by news media until disaster strikes. Having the National Levee Database (NLD) openly available should make reporting both routine and crisis stories a lot easier.
The release of the NLD by the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains it, is a step forward for open records. By contrast the Corps' National Inventory of Dams is only partially accessible by the public online.
The bad news is that after several years of work by the Corps, only a small fraction of all the levees in the US have been entered into the database. It now contains a majority of the levees within the Corps levee program. But a great many more levees are managed by other federal agencies as well as state, local, and tribal governments, and the Corps continues working to add these to the database. There are currently some 14,000 miles of levee in the system, but there may be another 100,000 miles of levee not under Corps jurisdiction.
But there is still a lot of information on important levees in the database — enough to get a journalist started on all kinds of stories from the local to the national scope. One good starting point: inspection dates and ratings — which are included.
The NLD data online is somewhat integrated with flood plain data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It also integrates precipitation data from the National Weather Service. These and other standard geodata sets can be layered and displayed as maps.
- National Levee Database.  See also NLD background. 
- "USACE Opens National Levee Database for Public Access Oct. 27,"  US Army Corps of Engineers, press release of Oct. 20, 2011. Contacts: Pete Pierce,  202-761-1809; or Carol Sanders. 
- National Committee on Levee Safety. 
- "New Levee Database Lists Inspection Ratings, Other Details,"  Governing, Oct. 27, 2011, by Mike Maciag.
- "Levee Conditions To Be Made Public on Army Corps of Engineers Database,"  Tulsa World, October 25, 2011, by Jim Myers.
- "Federal Progress Slow on Inventory of Levees,"  Associated Press with Nancy Gaarder of the Omaha World-Herald, Oct. 28, 2011.
- Previous Story: TipSheet of May 23, 2007.