Progress on Flood Plan Requires Continued Vigilance

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

By the action of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, we now have Central Valley Flood Protection Plan - California's first comprehensive flood protection plan in almost a century.  The Plan is long due in coming and poses many opportunities to improve flood protection and reduce flood risk.  However, if such a plan is to be successful the State and more particularly the Department of Water Resources must ensure that it does not repeat the mistakes of its planning process and must move to truly engage the local communities who have the greatest stake in the Plan's implementation.  Actions going forward should be devoted to projects that provide substantive flood protection and garner the biggest bang for our buck.

The Plan provides opportunities to improve the effectiveness and capacity of the entire system, including levees, weirs, and bypasses. These are referred to as system-wide improvements. The Flood Board has rightly recognized that DWR should begin with improvements that would substantively benefit the system as whole before moving to more ivory-towered notions. 

In this light the Board has removed from the Plan the construction of another bypass, the Feather River Bypass (Cherokee Canal) project. Many of us contended (and the Board apparently agreed) that this proposal was far too expensive, far too intrusive, and too limited in effectiveness to be included in the Plan.  Instead the Board has re-focused the Plan on existing projects at the bottom of the system that could improve flows and capacity.  DWR would do well to focus its initial efforts on such projects.  One such project is improvements to the Fremont Weir and the Yolo Bypass, which form a flood stage choke point in the Sacramento River at Verona.  This is a project that has the most ability to provide system-wide benefit.

System-wide projects, such as the Fremont Weir and Yolo Bypass, can be accomplished by putting efforts into a positive engagement with those most affected.  Engagement means more than just holding meetings in Sacramento.  The Flood Board recognized that stakeholder communities need to be actively recruited and brought into the process. 

For instance, in response to our stakeholder efforts the Flood Board eliminated and refused to adopt any conceptual setback proposals shown in the appendices to the Plan.  This included one such proposal that would have removed several hundred acres of farmland in the Rio Oso area of south Sutter County and which was adamantly opposed by several landowners in the area.  The Board also asserted that it will remain involved in the Plan's implementation to ensure that locals have the power to influence how projects are ultimately formulated and funded.  DWR's regional planning efforts must also seek out landowners, farmers, flood control agencies, local elected and other stakeholders in formulating system-wide solutions. 

DWR should also focus its efforts on getting more out of its existing bypass system.  Before considering expensive bypass setbacks that take farmland out of production, it would do well to explore how other techniques like dam operation and sediment and vegetation removal could increase the effectiveness of the bypasses.  The Board has also rightly indicated that such system-wide improvements should be borne by all system-wide beneficiaries. Therefore improvements to our bypasses should be cost-shared not only by Sutter and Yolo communities, but by all communities who receive flood protection benefit from the relief provided by the Sacramento River bypass system.

Finally, DWR must take seriously the concept that preserving agricultural productivity in the Sacramento Valley is essential to the mission of flood control and reducing flood risk. Agriculture is the safest and best use of the floodplain.  However, agriculture cannot bear additional takings, increased insurance costs, and incompatible ecosystem projects.  Projects must be carefully planned so as to minimize the impact to agriculture and to mitigate unavoidable impacts. DWR must actively work to reform FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program for agricultural areas and develop a rural levee program that will provide a feasible way of improving some of their worst levee problems.