Faced with epic floods in the late 1960s, dozens of communities across Minnesota hurriedly shaped dirt, clay, sand, gravel or whatever else was available into temporary walls to hold off the floodwaters.

In most cases, those levees were supposed to be removed once the water receded.

But more than 40 years later, ''emergency" levees remain the primary line of defense against floods, protecting hundreds of homes and businesses in numerous towns and cities. In an era of rising water and falling budgets, officials are viewing them with both thankfulness and nervousness.

"We're lucky they did it," said Dale Graunke, mayor and lifelong resident of Delano, which late last month held off the fourth-highest crest on the South Fork of the Crow River. "But we don't know the material. And if that levee breaks, 47 homes would be inundated. It's all over the place."

For nearly a week in March, a park on the back side of the levee in Delano, in exurban Wright County, became a small pond, filled with water that had seeped through or under the levee.

Across the metro area in Newport, south of St. Paul, an aging levee is riddled with tree roots and animal burrows, and been declared too unstable to be raised with sandbags. Volunteers were trained to inspect the aging berm for leaks along the Mississippi River.

"It creates problems when you're trying to fight a flood," said city manager Brian Anderson.

The generations-old levees aren't all suspect. The city of Carver built one in response to a 1969 flood that has withstood more than four decades of Minnesota River floods without significant problems. It has been temporarily raised with clay several times in recent years, said public works director Paul Schultz.

Once temporary, now scenery

But nobody really knows how many old levees are still standing in Minnesota, or what kind of shape they're in. Nationally about 15 percent of river levees have been designed or are being regularly checked and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Rick Hauck, levee safety program manager for the corps' St. Paul District.

Some were built decades ago but upgraded and certified by the corps, which means the homes they protect aren't required to buy flood insurance. But many have become simply part of the scenery. Newport's has a house on it.

Millions of state and federal dollars have been invested in recent years in more permanent flood protection for Minnesota cities, including walls, dikes reinforced with metal sheeting, diversions and removal of buildings from low ground.

The ongoing investments in flood mitigation largely seemed to pay off this spring as river cities, aided by a gradual thaw, endured historic-level crests without significant disruption or property loss. There may be a federal disaster declaration, but clearly it could have been worse.

"The last couple of years the floods would have been $10 million floods," said Steve Jones, city manager in Montevideo, located on the Minnesota River. "Things are much better than they used to be."

How to pay for improvements

But the timing is tricky. Montevideo has nearly completed two phases of a $14 million mitigation project, including building new protection for its wastewater treatment plant, removing some homes and raising low-lying parts of Hwy. 212. The next phase would replace its leaky, Beatles-era levee, which Jones called the "weak link" in the city's flood front.

"For a 'temporary' levee, it's been wonderful," Jones said. "But three years in a row now, we've had high water and more and more seepage in the levee. And realistically, it's not high enough."

A new levee would cost $3 million. "But we have a problem," Jones said. "We don't have the money."

It's the same elsewhere. Carver has considered tearing down its 42-year-old "temporary" levee, but doesn't have the $10 million it would take. In Delano, Graunke said the city needs a flood wall along its riverfront, which is all there's room for in its downtown. One design carried a pricetag of $30 million.

"Twenty years ago, it would have been cheaper just to move the town," Graunke said. A recent Army Corps study determined a wall and other flood-proofing would cost more than the value of the property it would protect. So there's no federal money available for a project.

Not enough state aid for all

The Legislature is considering whether to approve between $30 million and $50 million for flood mitigation this year. Most of that will probably go toward home removal, which is the strategy the state prefers, said Suzanne Jiwani, flood mapping engineer for the DNR.

But there are about $84 million in requests pending, said Pat Lynch, a hydrologist in the DNR's flood hazard mitigation assistance program. For 2010 the Legislature authorized $63.5 million. Lynch said many cities won't qualify for a state grant because they don't have the money to make a local match.

One thing that could ease the pressure for flood protection would be a drought. In fact, the lack of flooding in the 1970s may be one reason old levees are still standing.

"Flooding goes away and everybody forgets what [the levee] was," Graunke said. "But we're in a wet cycle now. Why not try to protect the city?"

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646