Like most metro and some rural areas of California, the vast Sacramento Valley is doing brisk business in heavy construction and retrofitting. But the first and main type of construction that comes to mind here is the race against time to shore up the 130-year-old system of levees. The barges and cranes on the Sacramento and American Rivers and the levee networks show the urgency of the hour. If a section of levee gives way in heavily populated areas, either by erosion or natural disaster such as an earthquake, images of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina come to mind.
The winter and spring rains and snow melt of 2005–06 dangerously eroded 33 levee banks along the Sacramento River. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's declared state of emergency at the time moved the State Legislature to provide $500 million for quick repairs. That work has been completed, but area residents remain apprehensive.
"Four of those 33 critical sites were in my neighborhood, a heavily populated section of the city called the Pocket," says Sacramento resident P.T. Hill. "We're in danger of catastrophic flooding if a levee breaks, as are many other communities in this region."
Hill noted that the city of Sacramento held a special election earlier this year to increase local assessments to double the area's level of flood control from 100-year to 200-year protection. The measure was approved by 81 percent of voting Sacramento homeowners.
According to the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, increased tax assessments will fund $326 million in projects over 30 years. Leveraged against state and federal funds, SAFCA estimates the tax will buy improvements totaling $2.68 billion.
"One of the biggest flood protection controversies in California, and particularly in the city of Sacramento, is whether to continue building new homes on deep flood plains before the levees are repaired," Hill said. "Sacramento's fast-growing Natomas area is a case in point. Last year's inspections revealed not just erosion and seepage problems within the levees, but that that thelevees in this part of Sacramento did not meet the federal 100-year flood protection standard. Estimates are that in the case of massive levee failure, the Natomas area — which includes the Arco sports arena — will be submerged."
In July 2007, The Water Education Foundation and California Department of Water Resources held a conference entitled, California's Flood Policy: How Safe is Safe?
Hill, who represents Transportation California, attended and summarized the event in an e-mail:
State Senator Mike Machado, 5th Senate District, notes that for levees that don't meet 100-year standards, "FEMA has a schedule of flood hazard zone designations that provide options to local government that do not impede economic development." The city of Sacramento has requested a waiver from FEMA to allow development to continue so long as homeowners carry flood insurance.
While building on flood plains is a controversial matter, Machado says a larger issue is policy. "Should it be left to local governments to set land use policy or should the state propose land use restrictions absent a levee meeting flood control?" Machado believes policymakers and stakeholders must consider whether the state can incorporate something similar to FEMA's policy to "allow time for regional progress and include flood control where it's been designated beyond the 100-year protection without imposing a moratorium on economic development."
Tim Coyle, senior vice president for Government Affairs of the California Building Industry Association, echoes Machado's position. He says the homebuilding industry is a willing partner to help finance flood protection. "It's pretty hard to be a partner in a flood improvement project when you don't have the capital to invest for those improvements."
Roger Dickinson, Sacramento County supervisor, is a member of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency and chair of the flood management task force of the California State Association of Counties. He says, "There is a consequence if we never build another house in a floodplain. Those people are going to go somewhere." He says the trade-offs, and larger land use planning guidelines, also need to be considered.
Most policy experts agree that the absence of a statewide, system-wide flood management policy compounds flood planning and protection problems. At the heart of the debate, however, are the levees themselves.
Lois Wolk, State Assembly member from the 8th Assembly District, sees "a disconnect between flood protection and land use decisions" throughout the state, not just in the Natomas area. She points out that the area around the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers have grown dramatically in the last decade. "Protecting these lives and property are 19th-century piles of dirt. We call them levees. There's less protection here than any other area with comparable risk in the United States," she said.