The side of a levee in Sacramento, California

A levee, levée, dike (or dyke), embankment, floodbank or stopbank is an elongated naturally occurring ridge or artificially constructed fill or wall, which regulates water levels. It is usually earthen and often parallel to the course of a river in its floodplain or along low-lying coastlines.[1]




The word levee, from the French word levée (from the feminine past participle of the French verb lever, "to raise"), is used in American English (notably in the Midwest and Deep South). It originated in New Orleans a few years after the city's founding in 1718 and was later adopted by English speakers.[2] The French pronunciation is [ləˈve], English /ˈlɛviː/.


The modern word dike most likely derives from the Dutch word "dijk", with the construction of dikes in the Netherlands well attested as early as the 12th century. The 126 kilometres (78 mi) long Westfriese Omringdijk was completed by 1250, and was formed by connecting existing older dikes. The Roman chronicler Tacitus even mentions that the rebellious Batavi pierced dikes to flood their land and to protect their retreat (AD 70).[3] The word dijk originally indicated both the trench and the bank. It is closely related to the English verb to dig (EWN).

According to the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica:

Holland's chief protection against inundation is its long line of sand dunes, in which only two real breaches have been effected during the centuries of erosion. These are represented by the famous sea dikes called the Westkapelle dike and the nl:Hondsbossche Zeewering, or sea-defence, which were begun respectively in the first and second halves of the 15th century. The first extends for a distance of over 4000 yds. between the villages of Westkapelle and Domburg in the island of Walcheren; the second is about 4900 yds. long, and extends from Kamperduin to near Petten, whence it is continued for another 1100 yds. by the Pettemer dike. These two sea dikes were reconstructed by the state at great expense between the year 1860 and 1884, having consisted before that time of little more than a protected sand dike. The earthen dikes are protected by stone-slopes and by piles, and at the more dangerous points also by nl:zinkstukken (sinking pieces), artificial structures of brushwood laden with stones, and measuring some 400 yds. in circuit, by means of which the current is to some extent turned aside. The Westkapelle dike, 12,468 ft. long, has a seaward slope of 300 ft., and is protected by rows of piles and basalt blocks. On its ridge, 39 ft. broad, there is not only a roadway but a service railway. The cost of its upkeep is more than 6000 a year, and of the Hondsbossche Zeewering 2000 a year. When it is remembered that the woodwork is infested by the pile worm (Teredo navalis), the ravages of which were discovered in 1731, the labour and expense incurred in the construction and maintenance of the sea dikes now existing may be imagined. In other parts of the coast the dunes, though not pierced through, have become so wasted by erosion as to require artificial strengthening. This is afforded, either by means of a so-called sleeping dike (nl:slaperdijk) behind the weak spot, as, for instance, between Kadzand and Breskens in Zeeland-Flanders, and again between 's-Gravenzande and Loosduinen; or by means of piers or breakwaters (hoofden, heads) projecting at intervals into the sea and composed of piles, or brushwood and stones. The first of such breakwaters was that constructed in 1857 at the north end of the island of Goeree, and extends over 100 yds. into the sea at low water.

—Encyclopedia Brittanica article on Holland, 1911, [4]

In Anglo-Saxon, the word dic already existed and was pronounced with a hard c in northern England and as ditch in the south. Similar to Dutch, the English origins of the word lie in digging a trench and forming the upcast soil into a bank alongside it. This practice has meant that the name may be given to either the excavation or the bank. Thus Offa's Dyke is a combined structure and Car Dyke is a trench though it once had raised banks as well. In the midlands and north of England, and in the United States, a dike is what a ditch is in the south, a property boundary marker or small drainage channel. Where it carries a stream, it may be called a running dike as in Rippingale Running Dike, which leads water from the catchwater drain, Car Dyke, to the South Forty Foot Drain in Lincolnshire (TF1427). The Weir Dike is a soak dike in Bourne North Fen, near Twenty and alongside the River Glen, Lincolnshire. In the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, a dyke may be a drainage ditch or a narrow artificial channel off a river or broad for access or mooring, some longer dykes being named, e.g. Candle Dyke.[5]

Artificial levees

The main purpose of an artificial levee is to prevent flooding of the adjoining countryside; however, they also confine the flow of the river, resulting in higher and faster water flow. Levees can be mainly found along the sea, where dunes are not strong enough, along rivers for protection against high-floods, along lakes or along polders. Furthermore, levees have been built for the purpose of empoldering, or as a boundary for an inundation area. The latter can be a controlled inundation by the military or a measure to prevent inundation of a larger area surrounded by levees. Levees have also been built as field boundaries and as military defences. More on this type of levee can be found in the article on dry-stone walls.

Levees can be permanent earthworks or emergency constructions (often of sandbags) built hastily in a flood emergency. When such an emergency bank is added on top of an existing levee it is known as a cradge.

Some of the earliest levees were constructed by the Indus Valley Civilization (in Pakistan and North India from circa 2600 BC) on which the agrarian life of the Harappan peoples depended.[6] Also levees were constructed over 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, where a system of levees was built along the left bank of the River Nile for more than 600 miles (970 km), stretching from modern Aswan to the Nile Delta on the shores of the Mediterranean. The Mesopotamian civilizations and ancient China also built large levee systems. Because a levee is only as strong as its weakest point, the height and standards of construction have to be consistent along its length. Some authorities have argued that this requires a strong governing authority to guide the work, and may have been a catalyst for the development of systems of governance in early civilizations. However others point to evidence of large scale water-control earthen works such as canals and/or levees dating from before King Scorpion in Predynastic Egypt during which governance was far less centralized.

Levees are usually built by piling earth on a cleared, level surface. Broad at the base, they taper to a level top, where temporary embankments or sandbags can be placed. Because flood discharge intensity increases in levees on both river banks, and because silt deposits raise the level of riverbeds, planning and auxiliary measures are vital. Sections are often set back from the river to form a wider channel, and flood valley basins are divided by multiple levees to prevent a single breach from flooding a large area. A levee made from stones laid in horizontal rows with a bed of thin turf between each of them is known as a spetchel.

Artificial levees require substantial engineering. Their surface must be protected from erosion, so they are planted with vegetation such as Bermuda grass in order to bind the earth together. On the land side of high levees, a low terrace of earth known as a banquette is usually added as another anti-erosion measure. On the river side, erosion from strong waves or currents presents an even greater threat to the integrity of the levee. The effects of erosion are countered by planting with willows, weighted matting or concrete revetments. Separate ditches or drainage tiles are constructed to ensure that the foundation does not become waterlogged.

River flood prevention

A levee keeps high water on the Mississippi River from flooding Gretna, Louisiana, in March 2005.

Prominent levee systems have been built along the Mississippi River and Sacramento River in the United States, and the Po, Rhine, Meuse River, Loire, Vistula, the delta formed by the Rhine, Maas/Meuse and Scheldt in the Netherlands and the Danube in Europe.

The Mississippi levee system represents one of the largest such systems found anywhere in the world. It comprises over 3,500 miles (5,600 km) of levees extending some 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) along the Mississippi, stretching from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to the Mississippi Delta. They were begun by French settlers in Louisiana in the 18th century to protect the city of New Orleans.[7] The first Louisiana levees were about 3 feet (0.91 m) high and covered a distance of about 50 miles (80 km) along the riverside.[7] The US Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with the Mississippi River Commission, extended the levee system beginning in 1882 to cover the riverbanks from Cairo, Illinois to the mouth of the Mississippi delta in Louisiana.[7] By the mid-1980s, they had reached their present extent and averaged 24 feet (7.3 m) in height; some Mississippi levees are as much as 50 feet (15 m) high. The Mississippi levees also include some of the longest continuous individual levees in the world. One such levee extends southwards from Pine Bluff, Arkansas for a distance of some 380 miles (610 km).

Coastal flood prevention

Levees are very common on the flatlands bordering the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Canada. The Acadians who settled the area can be credited with construction of most of the levees in the area, created for the purpose of farming the fertile tidal flatlands. These levees are referred to as "aboiteau". In the Lower Mainland around the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, there are levees to protect low-lying land in the Fraser River delta, particularly the city of Richmond on Lulu Island. There are also levees to protect other locations which have flooded in the past, such as land adjacent to the Pitt River and other tributary rivers.

Spur dykes

These typically man-made hydraulic structures are situated to protect against erosion. They are typically placed in alluvial rivers perpendicular, or at an angle, to the bank of the channel or the revetment,[8] and are used widely along coastlines. Spur dykes are generally divided into two types: permeable and impermeable, depending on the materials used.

Natural levees

Levees are commonly thought of as man-made, but they can also be natural. The ability of a river to carry sediments varies very strongly with its speed. When a river floods over its banks, the water spreads out, slows down, and deposits its load of sediment. Over time, the river's banks are built up above the level of the rest of the floodplain. The resulting ridges are called natural levees.

When the river is not in flood state it may deposit material within its channel, raising its level. The combination can raise not just the surface, but even the bottom of the river above the surrounding country. Natural levees are especially noted on the Yellow River in China near the sea where oceangoing ships appear to sail high above the plain on the elevated river. Natural levees are a common feature of all meandering rivers in the world.

Levees in tidal waters

Natural levees may be formed along creek banks that are subject to periodic flooding due to oceanic tides. Levee formation occurs as the incoming tide carries suspended sediment of all grades upstream to the limit imposed by the energy of the tidal flow. As the tidal waters overflow the creek banks, the water flow spreads out to cover a wider area than it did when confined to the stream's main channel. As the water spreads into the flood zone, its flow rate at the brink rapidly slows and much of the sediment that had been carried upstream by the tidal current is deposited along the bank. Over time, during the course of repeated tidal flooding, this sedimentation process forms a levee.

At the height of the tide, the water flow in flooded salt-marsh or flats is the most still and the finer particles slowly settle, forming clay. In the early ebb, the water level in the creek falls leaving the broad expanse of water standing on the marsh at a higher level. In an active system, the levee is always higher than the marsh. That is how it came to be called "une rive levée", or raised shore.

Levee failures and breaches

Man-made levees can fail in a number of ways. The most frequent (and dangerous) form of levee failure is a levee breach. A levee breach is when part of the levee actually breaks away, leaving a large opening for water to flood the land protected by the levee. A breach can be a sudden or gradual failure that is caused either by surface erosion or by a subsurface failure of the levee. Sometimes levees are said to fail when water overtops the crest of the levee.

See also



  1. ^ Henry Petroski (2006). Levees and Other Raised Ground. 94. American Scientist. pp. 7–11. 
  2. ^ "levee". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2nd ed. 1989.
  3. ^ Tacitus Histories V 19
  4. ^ "Article on Holland". Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1911. February 2011. http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Holland. 
  5. ^ http://www.countrysideaccess.norfolk.gov.uk/news-details.aspx?id=119
  6. ^ "Indus River Valley Civilizations". http://history-world.org/indus_valley.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  7. ^ a b c Kemp,Katherine. The Mississippi Levee System and the Old River Control StructureThe Louisiana Environment.
  8. ^ http://www.dpri.kyoto-u.ac.jp/nenpo/no51/ronbunB/a51b0p64.pdf Hao Zhang, Hajime Nakagawa, 2008, Scour around Spur Dyke: Recent Advances and Future Researches

General references

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