SACRAMENTO – In the past two years California has had a few grim reminders of what could happen if the state’s weak levee systems fail.
During the summer of 2004, a 350-foot section of a dirt levee near Stockton gave way onto fertile farmland, sending hundreds of people fleeing and causing $100 million worth of damage.
A little more than a year later, Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans with floodwaters, causing the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
Then, just as the Golden State was preparing to ring in the new year of 2006, a series of rainstorms pushed the state’s water system nearly to its limit. While no big levee failures were reported, the California Department of Water Resources said stormy weather caused between 40 and 50 concerns along the State Water Project and required 24-hour levee patrol.
Isolated regions were hard-hit as rivers and creeks flooded and drainage systems failed. Damage tallies continue to add up.
Meanwhile,California’s levees attract more attention from state and federal lawmakers, the media, even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
California’s flood control system is in dire straits.
“We have a deteriorating system and we’ve recognized that for some time,” said Les Harder, DWR’s acting deputy director of public safety.
Although federal and state government agencies and local levee districts have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to repair and maintain levees, flood control in California, which includes 6,000 miles of levees, has been neglected for decades, Harder said. Levees haven’t been improved to keep up with new housing developments. Flood maps are old. And the system’s protections haven’t been updated with evolving climate and weather data.
“We have (flood) maps … that mislead the public. We have urban areas that need higher levels of protection – and don’t – and so there’s a lot of work to do,” Harder said.The Sacramento metropolitan region was once believed to have 100-year flood protection, based on historical weather data and runoff predictions. But in reality, the city has about a 70-year flood protection system, a far cry from other large cities in the nation that were also built along rivers.
“As a comparison, most large river cities like Sacramento have protection from 300 to 500 years,” he said. “Even New Orleans had 250-year protection. So Sacramento is way behind. It’s actually the highest city of risk for this kind of flooding in the nation.”
The lack of flood protection for the region is largely due to insufficient funding, said Jason Fanselau, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. About 1,700 miles of the state’s 6,000 miles of levees have been incorporated into the state’s flood control project, which is maintained according to Corps of Engineers standards.
“Lack of maintenance is a significant concern for the corps,” Fanselau said. “There are levee districts within 20 miles of Sacramento whose annual maintenance budgets are $30,000. You can’t even buy a vehicle with that kind of money.”
If the governor gets his way, more funding for flood control will soon be on its way to the state’s ailing system.
When Schwarzenegger released his strategic growth plan in early January, he included $2.5 billion (to be spent over the next 10 years) for levee repairs, flood protection and emergency response.
“The question is ‘Is that going to happen?’” said Brenda Washington Davis, managing counsel for natural resources with the California Farm Bureau Federation.
One of the toughest challenges: where to begin with improvements.
"One of the things we have to remind ourselves is that the levees are a series of links in a chain, and it’s only as good as the weakest link,” said Harder, who visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “Ninety-nine percent of the levees in New Orleans did great. A few percent didn’t do so hot – and it was flooded as though you didn’t have any levees.
“We’ve got a window of opportunity here to take some additional steps to help reduce and mitigate the potential flood damages we could see here,” he said.