California storms bring flooding control into question



Property damage is no stranger to California home owners. The irony of flooding after a severe drought only causes more havoc on property owners and commercial real estate buildings. Below is a California news article from the Sacramento Bee about the shortcomings of some of the flooding control systems.


Two-thirds of the levee maintenance districts that experienced problems during the New Year's storms are among the districts a recent Bee investigation found to be in poor financial shape.

Nineteen levee maintenance districts between Yuba City and Stockton experienced levee problems during the storms - including seepage, erosion and overtopping - that were significant enough to require state assistance.

Though none of the 19 districts actually flooded, many had close calls and sustained levee damage from waves and high water. And this from a series of storms considered to be of only moderate intensity.

"For a relatively low-level storm, you have a picture of a pretty rickety flood control system that's barely held together," said Les Harder, chief of the division of flood management at the state Department of Water Resources. "We have a system that's old and aging and needs to be upgraded."

Two-thirds of the 19 districts that sustained damage have serious financial problems, with budget deficits averaging $178,000 and insufficient cash reserves to cover a year's operations. The budget numbers come from annual financial audits obtained by The Bee for a report published in December on the finances of 73 Central Valley levee districts.

These findings are a reminder that budget problems on the front line of the Valley's flood defenses are not just an accountant's concern. That red ink also may bring a greater likelihood of catastrophic flooding in this, the region with the nation's greatest flood threat.

Four more districts also had serious levee problems in the New Year's storms. But their financial audits were not available when the newspaper did its initial review, which relied on the most recent audits filed at the state controller's office.

Like all levee districts, the 19 hard-hit districts collect taxes from local landowners to maintain levees that protect farms, highways and towns, in this case including Clarksburg, Isleton and Bethel Island.

Some also guard islands in the western Sacramento-San Joa-quin Delta - islands that are critical for keeping seawater out of the Delta, a vital drinking-water supply for 23 million Californians.

Most of these districts use their local revenues to draw on state matching funds for levee maintenance. But those state funds have been in short supply for years, contributing to spotty levee maintenance throughout the Valley and an inability to perform desperately needed levee upgrades.

Basic annual levee maintenance costs as much as $15,000 per mile, while much-needed upgrades can cost more than $1 million per mile.

The Bee reported in December that nearly half of all levee districts in the Valley ended their most recent fiscal year in the red. Only one-third have enough cash in reserve to cover one year's operating costs.

State law severely limits the ability of these districts to raise their tax revenues. Meanwhile, operating expenses are on the rise, creating a backlog of deferred levee maintenance and an inability to undertake major levee reinforcement projects.

This was reflected in the New Year's storms, when many problems could be traced to simple issues such as rodent burrows, which create a path for seepage that can collapse levees.

Larger problems cropped up, too, including levees overtopped by wind-driven waves during a high tide - simply because many of the Valley's levees aren't tall enough.

"Typically in this business, for the districts that don't have money, it's just kind of a waiting game to see who breaches first. That's kind of the way it's always been," said Andrew Giannini, superintendent of the Brannan-Andrus Levee Maintenance District, which includes the town of Isleton.

"The ones that can't bring their levees up high enough, or don't have good bank protection, those are the ones that usually have problems first," he said.

In some cases, problems occurred in locations where trouble crops up repeatedly because districts can't afford a permanent fix.

One example was in Sacramento's Natomas area, where levee seepage occurred at a drainage pump station along the Sacramento River. The seepage has occurred here before. Reclamation District 1000 has a plan to fix it that requires moving the pump station farther from the levee, an expensive proposition.

Giannini's district maintains levees that protect the Sacramento County town of Isleton as well as State Highway 160. He clocked 68-mph winds during the peak of the New Year's storms, which drove waves capable of throwing basketball-size rocks across levee tops - rocks that had been placed to protect levees from wave erosion.

During the storms, his district had levee boils, sinkholes and severe wave erosion. In one case, Giannini said, a section of levee in his district lost a foot of width in just 15 minutes after waves stripped away its rock protection.

Giannini said his district hauled in $400,000 worth of new rock to protect levees during the storm.

That expense alone exceeds the $350,000 operating deficit the district reported in 2004, a year with no major storms.

All this suggests that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed funding package for flood control is coming just in time. Without financial help, deficits are likely to deepen for many levee districts, and major flood-control projects will move further out of reach.

Schwarzenegger's plan, announced last week, aims to boost funding for state flood-control programs that have been slashed in recent years. It proposes $2.5 billion in funding from two bond measures, which would leverage additional local and federal funds for a total of $6 billion for levees and other flood-control projects.

The governor's annual budget, released Tuesday, proposes an additional $35 million for the Department of Water Resources. The money would pay for 32 new engineers and levee maintenance workers to expedite repairs and upgrades.

"We're going back up to where we need to be, and we're fortunate the governor has attention focused on this," Harder said.

Numerous bills expected in the Legislature this year will propose additional reforms but some may face stiff opposition. Proposals include new tax assessments for flood control, mandatory flood insurance for properties in flood-prone areas, legal changes to help local levee districts increase revenues and development controls in flood-prone areas.

At least 115,000 homes are approved or planned in flood-prone areas of the Central Valley, The Bee reported in November. Some of these will be built in levee districts that suffered damage in the recent storms - such as Natomas and Stockton - which also have financial problems.

Development controls are especially important, said Jonas Minton, a senior project manager with the nonprofit Planning and Conservation League. New flood-control funding should be spent to protect existing residents, he said, not to make new development possible in risky areas.

"We're supportive of funding for flood-control measures as long as they are tied into basic reforms to ensure we're not continuing to put people in harm's way." But so far, he said, "I've seen no such linkage."

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