An overhaul of the flood control system in the Central Valley is in the works. Exactly what the new approach to flood control will be is uncertain. But what is clear is that a 2003 court decision making the state liable for more than $400 million in damages from a 1986 flood in Yuba County has dramatically raised the profile of flood control as a state policy issue.

In January, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) issued a white paper that called for major changes in how the state approaches flood control, including significant increases in funding from landowners. In February, DWR followed up by sponsoring two pieces of legislation: Assembly Bill 1665 (Laird) would replace the Board of Reclamation with a Central Valley Flood Control Assessment District, while ACA 13 (Harman) would remove flood control assessments from Proposition 218's two-thirds vote requirement.

Meanwhile, the Board of Reclamation, the entity with the most flood control responsibility in the valley, continues to wrestle with development in the Central Valley. In February, the board backed away from its threat of shutting down a 12,000-unit project in Yuba County on land that flooded in 1986 and again in 1997. Instead, the Board of Reclamation approved a compromise with a joint powers authority in Yuba County that allows housing construction to continue at the Plumas Lakes project originally approved in 1993. In exchange, the JPA compose of the county and Reclamation District 784 must repair and improve levees to provide 185-year flood protection. The deal came after months of negotiations, during which county officials said they needed funds from the development to help pay for levee improvements.

Although the Board of Reclamation voted 4-2 for the compromise, board members made clear they would rather that Yuba County found somewhere drier to grow houses. But the situation there is hardly unique.

The Central Valley flood control system protects tens of billions of dollars worth of real estate and hundreds of thousands of people, yet the system itself is somewhat haphazard. The system is composed of 1,600 miles of levees, and a series of overflow weirs and bypass channels. For the most part, the system was designed during the late 19th century and built during the first half of the 20th century. However, designers had in mind the protection of farmland, not subdivisions. Oftentimes, the “engineering” was minimal, and levees amounted to little more than piles of mine waste and native soil. In fact, some of those levees are still in place.

The system was designed with the assumption that flood managers would line the inside of levees with rock to prevent erosion, and keep the back sides of levees bare to enable easy inspection, explained Les Harder, chief of DWR's Division of Flood Management. Modern environmental concerns make that practice unthinkable, he said.

Local reclamation districts and levee districts maintain about 1,300 miles of levees, while DWR is responsible for the Sacramento River system. The local agencies are often very small and have modest budgets. According to the recent DWR report and others that preceded it, levee maintenance is lacking.

The DRW report, “Flood Warnings: Responding to California's Flood Crisis,” paints a grim picture: “California's Central Valley flood control system is deteriorating and, in some places, literally washing away. Furthermore, the Central Valley's growing population is pushing new housing developments and job centers into areas that are particularly vulnerable to flooding. Yet, in recent years, funding to maintain and upgrade the flood protection infrastructure has sharply declined. Compounding these challenges is a recent court ruling, Paterno v. State of California, that held the state liable for flood-related damages caused by a levee failure. Together, these factors have created a ticking time-bomb for flood management in California.”

The Paterno decision “was a wake-up call,” for the state, said Rita Schmidt Sudman, who heads the Water Education Foundation. In Paterno, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the state was liable under the theory of inverse condemnation for damage to more than 3,000 homes and other property in the unincorporated Yuba County communities of Linda and Olivehurst - very close to the controversial Plumas Lakes project. The court determined “the evidence overwhelmingly shows the failure of the levee was foreseeable” (see CP&DR Legal Digest, January 2004).

The state now faces a bill of roughly $450 million because of the Paterno ruling. The DWR report says that future levee failures could be far more costly. Levees protect more than half a million people, structures worth an estimated $47 billion, and 2 million acres of cultivated farmland.

Yet in the years since the levee failure involved in Paterno, DWR has reduced its maintenance staff from 81 to 53 people. Money is the main reason, but public apathy appears to be the indirect cause.

The problem, said DWR's Harder, is that many people who live in areas protected by levees do not know it. A homeowner may live four miles from a levee, but if that levee broke, the home might soon be under 20 feet of water, he said.

“Some people have no idea that they are in a floodplain,” Harder said.

What Harder describes is exactly the situation in North Natomas, the City of Sacramento's fastest growing area. North Natomas is nearly surrounded by distant levees. If the wrong one busted loose, flood waters could reach 22 feet deep at Arco Arena.

“Right now,” Harder said “there is a large disconnect between organizations that approve development in floodplains, which are typically cities and counties, and those agencies that are responsible for the flood control systems, which is typically the state.”

Local planners, however, say they have little choice but to rely on the levee system and related Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps.

“I think we're very mindful of the floodplains and do our land use planning with that in mind,” said Bruce Coleman, community development director in the City of Lathrop. He pointed out that levees near Lathrop were improved during the 1980s and 1990s.

Coleman's fast-growing city on the eastern edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has only one project in the 100-year floodplain - the 11,000-unit River Islands development (see CP&DR Local Watch, March 2003). The site has flooded several times in recent decades. When the city approved the project two years ago, it required River Islands developers to remove the property from the 100-year floodplain, Coleman said. Developers plan to do this by building 300-foot-wide levees called “high ground.” The project still needs permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Board of Reclamation.

The FEMA maps on which Coleman and other planners rely are part of the problem, according to the DWR report. “[D]ue to either limited historical data or climate change, the general trend is for flood flows to be higher than anticipated. … Thus, many existing floodplain maps are woefully out of date,” states the DWR report, which urges new mapping and better public education.

The DWR found that a reliable flood control system in the Central Valley would require a capital investment of about $2 billion over 10 to 15 years, and annual maintenance of $100 million - figures that are many magnitudes greater than current expenditures on flood safety. To raise the funds, AB 1665 would create an assessment district that could tax lands in a floodplain or that drain to a floodplain. There appears to be no precedent for an assessment district of this geographic size, although it does make sense because it is all one system, said one legislative aide.

What is largely unaddressed in AB 1665 and DWR's report is the issue of land use. The question that few have wanted to even ask is this: If the state is financially liable for the levee system - which is what the Paterno court said - shouldn't the state have some say over what gets built in areas protected by levees? It is a question likely to arise as AB 1665 and ACA 13 wend through the Legislature.

Les Harder, Department of Water Resources, Division of Flood Control, (916) 574-0601.
Rita Schmidt Sudman, Water Education Foundation, (916) 444-6240.
Bruce Coleman, City of Lathrop, (209) 858-2860.
DWR flood management white paper: