• levee impacts;
  • flooding;
  • water-level changes;
  • stream gauge records;
  • floodplain conveyance;
  • change detection;
  • statistical methods


This study used stream gauge records to assess the impact of levees on flood levels, providing an empirical test of theoretical and model predictions of the effects on local flood response. Focusing upon a study area in Illinois and Iowa for which levee records were available, we identified 203 gauges with ≥ 50 years hydrological record, including 15 gauges where a levee was constructed during the period of record. At these sites, step-change analysis utilizing regression residuals tested levee-related stage changes and levels of significance and quantified the magnitudes of stage changes. Despite large differences in stream sizes, levee alignments, and degree of floodplain constriction, the post-levee rating-curve adjustments showed consistent signatures. For all the study sites, stages for below bankfull (non-flood) conditions were unaffected by levee construction. For above bankfull (flood) conditions, stages at sites downstream of their associated levees also were statistically indistinguishable before versus after levee construction. However, at all sites upstream of levees or within leveed reaches, stages increased for above bankfull conditions. These increases were abrupt, statistically significant, and generally large in magnitude – ranging up to 2.3 m (Wabash River at Mt. Carmel, IL). Stage increases began when discharge increased above bankfull flow and generally increased in magnitude with discharge until the associated levee(s) were overtopped. Detailed site assessments and supplementary data available from some sites helped document the dominant mechanisms by which levees can increase flood levels. Levee construction reduces the area of the floodplain open to storage of flood waters and reduces the width of the floodplain open to conveyance of flood flow. Floodplain conveyance often is underestimated or ignored, but Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) measurements analysed here confirm previous studies that up to 70% or more of the total discharge during large floods (~3% chance flood) can move over the floodplain. Upstream of levees and levee-related floodplain constriction, backwater effects reduce flow velocities relative to pre-levee conditions and, thus, increase stages for a given discharge. The empirical results here confirm a variety of theoretical predictions of levee effects but suggest that many one-dimensional model-based predictions of levee-related stage changes may underestimate actual levee impacts. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.