AskDefine | Define levee

Dictionary Definition

levee n : a barrier constructed to contain the flow of water or to keep out the sea [syn: dam, dike, dyke]

User Contributed Dictionary



From levée, from lever ‘to raise, rise’.


  • a UK /ˈlɛvi/|/ˈlɛv.eɪ/, /"levi/|"lev.eI/
  • a US , /ˈlɛvi/, /"levi/
    Homophones: levy


  1. An embankment to prevent inundation; as, the levees along the Mississippi.
  2. The steep bank of a river, or border of an irrigated field.
  3. A pier or other landing place on a river.
  4. A formal reception, especially one given by royalty (originally, upon rising from bed).


an embankment

Extensive Definition

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 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.
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.
The first 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 (966 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.
In modern times, prominent levee systems exist along the Mississippi River and Sacramento Rivers in the United States, and the Po, Rhine, Meuse River, Loire, Vistula, the river delta in the Netherlands and Danube in Europe.
The Mississippi River levee system represents one of the largest such systems found anywhere in the world. They comprise over 3,500 miles (5,600 km) of levees extending some 1,000 miles (1,600 km) 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. The first Louisianan levees were about 3 feet (0.9 m) high and covered a distance of about 50 miles (80 km) along the riverside. By the mid-1980s, they had reached their present extent and averaged 24 feet (7 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 (611 km).

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

The basic process occurs in tidal creeks when the incoming tide carries mineral material of all grades up to the limit imposed by the energy of the flow. As the tide overflows the sides of the creek towards high water, the flow rate at the brink slows and larger sediment is deposited, forming the levee. At the height of the tide, the water stands on the salt-marsh or flats 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.
The area of water on the marsh is much greater than the water surface of the creek so that in the latter, the flow rate is much greater. It is this rush of water, perhaps an hour after high water, which keeps the creek channel open. The cross-sectional area of the water body in the creek is small compared with that initially over the levee which at this stage is acting as a weir. The deposited sediment (coarse on the levee and on the mud flats or salt-marsh) therefore tends to stay put so that, tide by tide, the marsh and levee grow higher until they are of such a height that few tides overflow them. 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 in German: Deich
levee in French: Levée
levee in Italian: Argine
levee in Dutch: Oeverwal
levee in Japanese: 堤防
levee in Polish: Wał przeciwpowodziowy
levee in Romanian: Dig
levee in Russian: Дамба

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

affair, arch dam, assemblee, assembly, assignation, at home, backstop, ball, bamboo curtain, bank, bar, barrage, barrier, bear-trap dam, beaver dam, berth, boom, brawl, breakwater, breastwork, brick wall, buffer, bulkhead, bulwark, caucus, cofferdam, colloquium, commission, committee, conclave, concourse, congregation, congress, conventicle, convention, convocation, council, dam, dance, date, defense, diet, dike, ditch, dock, earthwork, eisteddfod, embankment, fence, festivity, fete, forgathering, forum, gate, gathering, get-together, gravity dam, groin, housewarming, hydraulic-fill dam, iron curtain, jam, jetty, leaping weir, logjam, matinee, meet, meeting, milldam, moat, mole, mound, panel, parapet, party, plenum, portcullis, prom, quay, quorum, rally, rampart, reception, rendezvous, reunion, roadblock, rock-fill dam, salon, seance, seawall, session, shindig, shutter dam, sit-in, sitting, slip, sociable, social, social affair, social gathering, soiree, stews, stone wall, symposium, synod, tenderloin, turnout, wake, wall, weir, wicket dam, work
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