Flood risk high in CA

Residents face potential severe flooding risks should the levee system in the Sacramento area fail.

BY HEATHER MOYER | SACRAMENTO, Calif. | March 15, 2006

"When we have urbanized areas of hundreds of thousands of homes and we only have 100-year protection - that's really inadequate."

—Rod Mayer

State officials and disaster responders are warning northern California residents about potential severe flooding risks should the levee system in the Sacramento area fail.

Media attention surrounding the levee failures in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has again brought national attention to the Sacramento area levee system. The city sits at the convergence of two large rivers - the American and the Sacramento. Much of the city is only around 28 feet above sea level and a system of levees surrounds many neighborhoods. And then upstream on the American River sits the Folsom Dam - which the dam's own operator stated as "No. 1 on the federal Bureau of Reclamation's safety priority list." The mix produces a possible recipe for a huge disaster in an area with more than 500,000 residents - not to mention the hundreds of thousands more that live downstream on the Sacramento River as it approaches San Francisco and the Bay.

"The delta is very fragile," said the Rev. Melinda McLain, disaster response co-coordinator for the Northern California and Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ. "If there's a levee breach in the wrong place, it would all go - it could be a Katrina-sized disaster. The ways the levees are set up, it could start a chain reaction."

So local and state emergency officials and disaster responders are educating the public on the issues and pressuring the state and federal government to shore up levees that are old or not high enough. There is also a worry about the population increasing in areas at a high risk of total inundation if a flood occurs. McLain's co-coordinator, Kevin Manz, notes that some neighborhoods now have developers building homes on top of levees or right up next to levees.

"The heavy rain seasons wear away at our levees," explained Manz. "We're also worried about the undercutting water can do to a levee - like what happened in New Orleans."

In an area that's already seen many, many floods in the past century and before the levees were built - the worry is that time is running out on when the next major flood will cause a tremendous disaster. After a major flood in 1986 when the Folsom Dam exceeded its capacity and several area levees almost collapsed, several local agencies formed the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA) - which has a mission to "provide the Sacramento region with increased flood protection along the American and Sacramento Rivers" and to "provide the region with at least a 100-year level of flood protection as quickly as possible while seeking a 200-year or greater level of protection over time."

A 2004 levee breach also warranted major attention to the issue, added McLain, as has a spate of very heavy rain and localized flooding over the past several months. The 100-year-flood risk is one state officials are worried about, and some think the levees may not even be able to withstand a storm of that category.

"The most pervasive problem we have in California is low levels of flood protection for highly urban areas," said Rod Mayer, acting chief of the Division of Flood Management for the California Department of Water Resources. "When we have urbanized areas of hundreds of thousands of homes and we only have 100-year protection - that's really inadequate. That means if you have a 30-year mortgage on your house, there's a one in four chance of this occurring during your 30 years. And that's just too high."

Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is now getting in on the issue as well. In late February, the governor sent a letter to Congress stating the following:

"The first (threat) is to the City of Sacramento. With 100-year flood protection or less in some areas, Sacramento has the lowest flood protection of any major river city in the United States. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had 250-year protection. Several high priority projects in the region, identified below, require federal participation to raise flood protection up to a 200-year level.

"The second threat is to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta levee system. This network of fragile earthen levees protects communities, valuable agricultural land, key transportation and utility corridors and our state's fresh water supply. If major levee failures were to occur, homes, farms, roads, railways, energy pipelines and power lines would be flooded. Additionally, water supplies would be contaminated by salt water and other pollutants. Such an event would jeopardize the water supply of more than 22 million Californians as well as the irrigation of more than three million acres of the most productive agricultural land in the nation.

"Following the levee failure in the Jones Tract in 2004, a failure not caused by either a flood event or seismic activity, the State of California spent over $100 million to repair damage to the levee and impacted land. A recent study by the University of California concluded that there is a 66 percent chance that either a major earthquake or flood would lead to catastrophic levee failure in the Delta region in the next 50 years. The costs of even a significant failure in the system could reach into the tens of billions and much higher with an incremental increase in the severity of the event."

Schwarzenegger went to Congress to ask for matching funds to improve the levees - but came away with nothing. He's now pushing the state legislature to fund the levee improvements. Mayer said billions of dollars of work needs to be done on the levees, and a bond measure currently in the state legislature would provide $4 billion for improvements over the next 10 years. "We've done a lot of work on flood control projects with state and federal partners, but there's more work to be done by far than what we've accomplished in the past 10 to 15 years."

Another current project for Mayer's Division of Flood Management is making sure residents know about flood plains. He said the agency is identifying all the homes and properties protected by levees or in levee failure inundation zones. "We're notifying all property owners that they live in these areas and providing them maps, showing them what the potential flood depths are," he said. He added that SAFCA is also doing an excellent job of educating the public through town hall meetings.

Beyond the levee issues is the Folsom Dam. Owned and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the 51-year-old dam sits 23 miles upstream from Sacramento. The bureau, along with state agencies, is now undergoing a "Combined Federal Effort" for the dam, aiming to improve the structure's issues related to major flood events, earthquakes and seismic issues, and seepage and piping problems.

The state's Division of Safety of Dams is working closely with the bureau on the issues due to the huge disaster a dam failure would be. "It's a unique dam in the sense that it's one of the highest consequence dams in the country," said David Gutierrez, chief of the Division of Safety of Dams. "It's just upstream from the City of Sacramento and because of that large population that makes it an extreme consequence dam. If it were to fail, it would affect a huge population. That's what makes it so critical."

Gutierrez noted that Folsom is not an immediate hazard, but the population at risk makes its safety a priority. He said his and Mayer's divisions both review and comment on the Bureau of Reclamation's proposed upgrades.

On the disaster response level, responders like McLain and Manz are staying in touch with local churches and the national denomination. McLain also works closely with the state chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and the state Office of Emergency Services. She said that type of communication and coordination is essential when planning preparations.

Manz said that it's not uncommon for faith groups to be involved with an issue like levee failures. "One of the reasons I'm involved is because it's critical to our church as we provide a sense of God in the world - that we be able to respond to things related to technology and human invention," he explained. "In California, we have earthquakes and floods, but we also have a very large and growing population at risk. It puts our churches and all of god's people at risk if we don't do the things that we can to properly steward God's resources."

He also noted that because Hurricane Katrina affected so many UCC churches in New Orleans, it is essential to focus on another place where a similar catastrophe could occur. "I'm very involved in the insurance issues in our denomination. We experienced some significant losses due to hurricane damages, which caused us to restructure and readdress insurance needs for our congregations. We need to think about how we provide support to each other."

For now, the best advice officials like Mayer and responders like Manz can offer to the public is to prepare.

"I think there are several things residents can do," said Mayer. "They should be well-educated on their flood risk. They should be ready for a flood disaster and already have their emergency supplies and evacuation plans ready to go. More importantly than that, they should have flood insurance to cover their losses. They should also support a proper level of assessment, maintenance and improvements to keep the levees safe and to raise flood level protection."

Manz echoed the sentiment, and added that people need to really think about where they decide to live. "The first thing I'm certain about is that people should seriously be looking at the insurance question," he said. "And then the other thing, where do people buy homes? New developments are being suggested and some are down along the river. Others are not at the right levels for nearby levees - but there are proposals to building hundreds of new homes in these areas. I grew up on a farm in Kansas, so I know you don't build in a flood plain. But that's not how real estate works out here."

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Related Links:

Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency

Bureau of Reclamation

CA Dept of Water Resources Division of Dam Safety

CA Dept of Water Resources Division of Flood Management

United Church of Christ Disaster Response


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