Army Corps of Engineers Changes Course in Flood Control
Five California waterways are in the running for federal funding in a new program to help restore and protect their environmental features while building protection against floods.
A federal water bill signed by President Clinton last August listed the waterways. The program is another sign of a dramatic shift in how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approaches flood control. Instead of trying to control water flows and protect every structure from harm's way, under the new Challenge 21 (also called Section 212) program, the Corps will remove people and structures from places where there has been repeated flooding. Rather than adding more concrete, dams and levees, flood control efforts will incorporate natural features, provide more open space along waterways, and encourage habitat and wetlands restoration.
The bill for the five-year demonstration project provided that "studies and projects [under Section 212] shall emphasize, to the maximum extent practicable and appropriate, nonstructural approaches to preventing or reducing flood damages."
"It represents a new way of thinking about the flood plain," said Michael Davis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for public works. "While structural approaches have worked well in the past, and will continue in some cases to work well in the future, we want to make sure that nonstructural options are considered fully."
The Challenge 21 program should, Davis said, "demonstrate that nonstructural approaches and ecosystem restoration ... is a good thing and will reduce flooding and improve our environment."
The bill authorized $200 million over five years, with the first allocations expected after October 2000. Local and state governments must pay up to 35 percent of the cost of any environmental restoration or nonstructural flood control project, and the federal government picks up the rest of the tab.
The five California waterways named as priority areas are:
o The Coachella Valley in Riverside County.
o Murrieta Creek in Riverside County.
o Napa River watershed, in Yountville, St. Helena, Calistoga, and American Canyon.
o Santa Clara basin, including the Upper Guadelupe River and its tributaries, San Francisquito Creek, which runs through Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, and Upper Penitencia Creek.
o Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers.
California has the largest number of priority areas in the legislation, followed by Pennsylvania with three waterways. Davis said he expects that ultimately 10 to 15 projects will be funded under Challenge 21, even though the bill listed 23 priority watersheds. And with a cap of $30 million per project, it is unlikely that the concrete-lined Los Angeles River will be torn up. More likely, the money might fund a small wetlands restoration along the river, he said. Guidelines for projects should be released in several months, and Davis expects communities outside the priority areas might also to apply for funds.
"Listing projects simply means that when money is appropriated for Challenge 21, these are probably the projects that will be considered first," said Peter Moreno, water resources project assistant with the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C. "Authorization of Challenge 21 does not guarantee that these projects will be funded. That is up to the appropriations process."
The Clinton administration had requested $325 million for the program. "Overall," Moreno said, "Challenge 21 was a major accomplishment, even though the funding levels were below the administration's request. The Corps' ability to carry out voluntary property buyouts and other nonstructural alternatives will help to direct floodplain management in this country toward more sustainable, environmentally friendly ends."
"I think it's great," said Ron Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River in Sacramento. While applauding the new program, Stork added, "the demand far exceeds the resources."
The program adopted by Congress incorporates many of the features of a $200 million project already underway in Napa Valley to restore the Napa River. Most of that money is designated for the city of Napa, which has experienced regular flooding from winter storms during the last 10 years. (See CP&DR Environment Watch, May 1998.) Up to 675 acres of marshes and wetlands are being restored or preserved, trees and bushes are being planted and a recreational trail is planned. A total of $6 million in local funding is being provided through a voter-approved sales tax.
The Napa program was developed through negotiations between local officials and the Army Corps of Engineers and marked a shift from the Corps' traditional role of dam-builder.
With funding from the Challenge 21 program, more money could be spent on river restoration and flood control outside Napa in other parts of the county, according to County Supervisor Mike Rippey.
While efforts to restore the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers are moving slowly, proponents see the possible money as a way to restore parts of the rivers to a more natural state. A meeting to discuss the new program with the head of the Army Corps of Engineers and local environmentalists was planned for mid-December, said Melanie Winter, executive director of Friends of the Los Angeles River.
Additional money may be provided to river restoration projects in Los Angeles County if separate parks and water bonds pass during March's state primary, she said. Money could be used, among other ways, to remove industrial warehouses lining river banks to create more open space, or to add retention basins to save water and reduce the amount of stormwater in the river beds.
The new approach by the Army Corps of Engineers is not the only change in flood control efforts at the federal level. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken a harder line in recent years toward rebuilding in areas recovering from floods. The House of Representatives is considering a bill, co-sponsored by Representative Doug Bereuter, (R-Nebraska) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), that would restrict property owners from retaining subsidized federal flood insurance if their properties have been damaged more than once. The bill, H.R. 2728, has the official title of "Two floods and you are out of the taxpayer's pocket act of 1999." Another similar bill, H.R. 1297, the Repetitive Flood Loss Reduction Act, sponsored by Rep. Ken Bentsen, (D-Texas) has also been introduced.
Davis said the Corps intends to work with other federal agencies such as FEMA, EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as it plans the projects.
Michael Davis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, (703) 697-3366.
Ron Stork, Friends of the River (916) 442-3155.
Peter Moreno, National Wildlife Federation (202) 797-6697.
Mike Rippey, Supervisor, Napa County (707) 253-4386.
Melanie Winter, Executive Director, Friends of the LA River, (323) 223-0585.