It Can Happen Here: Assessing California’s Flood Risk
Is the devastating flooding that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast an ominous warning to California? That’s the question policymakers are facing as they consider how to best protect lives, property and the integrity of the state’s water supply from the forces of raging floodwaters.
While California lacks the specter of hurricanes, it has another, which takes the form of a major earthquake that could collapse dozens of Delta levees, spilling salt water into the nexus of the state’s water supply and shutting down supplies for millions of people hundreds of miles to the south. The threat is not new. In fact, the Delta is quite similar to New Orleans – reclaimed, subsiding land below sea level protected by levees. While its levees do not protect a metropolitan area, the Delta has been under much focus by a host of interested groups, water users chief among them, asking whether the region has a sustainable future.
“Hurricane Katrina demonstrated in tragic and dramatic fashion what can happen when a natural disaster wipes out infrastructure and essential services to protect public health and safety,” states an Oct. 7 letter from the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “There is a solid consensus among every responsible party that has studied the Delta that such a natural disaster, whether it be flood, earthquake or some combination, is not only possible as a threat to the Delta it is likely within the foreseeable future.”
Echoes of Hurricane Katrina resound throughout California, especially in the Central Valley, where residents recall the onrush of river water from years past. In 1986 and 1997, powerful storms brought devastating floods in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley, as raging rivers blasted through weak links in the levee system. Delta levees have periodically failed, including a June 2004 episode when an unexpected levee collapse inundated Jones Tract.
While no natural disaster is preventable, there are many factors influencing the amount of destruction, including the soundness of flood management infrastructure and the decision-making process that takes place prior to floodplain development.
Critics argue that planners have mistakenly allowed extensive development to occur in areas prone to flooding. “We are stuck with a legacy of bad choices,” wrote Jeffrey Mount, professor of geology at the University of California, Davis, and director of the Center for Integrated Watershed Science, in a Sept. 4 commentary. “We have knowingly developed flood prone landscapes. This development fuels itself like a fusion reactor, creating spiraling land values and population growth within deep floodplains with ever-escalating demands for more protection.”
The Delta covers more than 700,000 acres of farmland and is home to about half a million people. Its nearly 60 islands are guarded by about 1,100 miles of levees, the majority of which are privately owned and maintained and are of questionable quality. The levees, which are more like dams because of their constant exposure to currents, also protect oil and gas lines and transportation corridors. But the biggest asset of all is the reliance the levees provide for the conveyance of fresh water through the Delta and toward the two giant pumping stations that provide southern California with 20 to 30 percent of its water. A massive failure of Delta levees would shut down water exports for months, possibly as long as two years under a worse case scenario.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” said Sen. Michael Machado, D-Linden, at a Nov. 1 legislative hearing on flood management. “The economic consequences of catastrophic levee failure would be severe.”
As 2005 began, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) released Flood Warnings: Responding to California’s Flood Crisis, offering an unflinching assessment of the Central Valley flood control system, which was described as “deteriorating and … literally washing away.” Booming housing growth, combined with slashed flood control funding and state liability exposure for levee failure “have created a ticking time-bomb.”
“In general, the flood control system does not provide the necessary protection for public safety, property and economic values,” the report said.
With that as a backdrop, state lawmakers began a legislative session that by all accounts failed to address the flood management crisis. “I am very disappointed that more wasn’t done,” said Assemblymember Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who chairs the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. “We couldn’t overcome the inertia and opposition of those who benefit from the status quo.”
Wolk said property development should be “restricted considerably” in floodplains and that state agencies should assert their jurisdiction toward that effect. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘Who’s in charge and who has the power to say yes and no?’” she said. “The Delta Protection Commission and the state Reclamation Board need to be strengthened and given that power when local government acts improperly.”
Scott Shapiro, a Sacramento attorney representing local flood control agencies, offered a blunt that “some would even argue we’ve gone backward” because of cuts in state funding for Delta levees. Girding against the flood risk is the state’s “largest, looming” problem but “there isn’t focus … to solve the problem,” he said.
A measure backed by the Schwarzenegger administration sought to create the means to assess fees and taxes on property owners to support the work of local districts in their levee maintenance duties. The proposal was controversial and eventually scaled back to accommodate those concerned with the fiscal impact.
“We supported the notion that the state of California has to figure out a better way of financing maintenance and improvements, but we were concerned about the application of a valley-wide assessment,” said Mike Hardesty, president of the Central Valley Flood Control Association. “There were little to no details into what that meant and how such an assessment would be appropriated.”
Funding levee repairs could be accomplished through a $10.3 billion bond proposal for infrastructure projects carried next year by Senate President Don Perata, D-Alameda. The measure, which stalled in 2005, would include $1.2 billion specifically designated for levee work.
The disaster in New Orleans has prompted a re-assessment and reevaluation of the reliance on levees as primary protection for lives and property. The floodwaters in New Orleans had yet to recede when the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) released a paper, Hurricane Katrina: Reconstruction through Mitigation, which challenged the adherence to the existing flood management strategy. The paper found that levees “are only built to a certain level of protection, which will be exceeded at some point in the future,” and those new levees should not be used to protect undeveloped land.
“We don’t promote levees at all,” said Larry Larson, executive director with the association. “If there are better options, than they ought to be used.”
But it is more than lives and property at risk. In a May 2005 report called No Time to Waste – A Blueprint for California Water, ACWA said the Delta’s “long-term viability” as a water supply source is at risk from levee instability and other factors that could “imperil the water supply for much of the state.” The report calls on officials to come up with a plan by December 2006 that ensures stability of the state’s water supply.
“Our elected leaders and policy makers must begin addressing these risks now before a major disruption takes place and we have little choice but to act on an emergency basis,” the report said.
Solving the problem involves a number of key elements, such as prioritizing scarce funds for the most important projects, educating the public about the risks of living in a floodplain and conveying the Delta’s importance to the state’s water supply. The situation has sparked renewed discussion in costly and controversial propositions such as the Auburn Dam and a Peripheral Canal, and has intensified the debate regarding the appropriate responsibilities for state, responsibilities of those who willingly live in harm’s way.
“We believe insurance is an absolutely critical part of a comprehensive flood management strategy,” said Stein Buer, executive director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency. “The concept of mandatory flood insurance … is certainly worth exploring in this community.”
But stoking the public’s interest in flood issues is often a hard sell as the period between disasters lengthens. “The public is interested when a flood happens but disinterested any other time, and public officials sense that,” said Phil Isenberg, a former state assemblyman.
Meanwhile, rapid housing growth is pushing subdivisions closer to areas behind levees that were built to protect farmland. The issue is complicated and controversial and has sparked calls for greater state oversight of land use decisions reserved to local government. The state Reclamation Board, which oversees the Sacramento/ San Joaquin River flood control system, this year sought to raise public awareness of the issue by questioning development plans in floodplains.
Board members were abruptly fired by Schwarzenegger Sept. 27. Shapiro said the move may have reflected a clash between the former board, all of whom were appointed by former Gov. Gray Davis, and Schwarzenegger’s push to accommodate the state’s growing need for affordable housing, particularly in the Central Valley. “I think that a majority of that board was simply too focused on trying to prevent new development in areas protected by levees, instead of offering flood control solutions that would simultaneously allow building to continue,” he said.
Finally, there is the thorny issue of funding sources, a particularly vexing issue during a time of constrained budgets and the politically charged question of tax increases. Policymakers and various interest groups have struggled to frame the issue, with some arguing for greater federal and state investment and others advocating a more localized, pay-as-you-go approach. Addressing the problem of crumbling levees “is not impossible but it requires doing things that are politically unpopular and no politician likes that,” Isenberg said. “We are constrained to solutions … that appear to not cost money.”
This issue of Western Water examines the extent to which California faces a disaster equal to or greater than the New Orleans floods and the steps being taken to recognize and address the shortcomings of the flood control system in the Central Valley and the Delta, which is of critical importance because of its role in providing water to 22 million people. Complicating matters are the state’s skyrocketing pace of growth coupled with an inherently difficult process of obtaining secure, long-term funds for levee repairs and continued maintenance.
For more flood management information, refer to the Layperson’s Guide to Flood Management and September/October 2004 Western Water.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the November/December 2005 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.
It was Christmas Eve 1955 and suddenly the people of California faced the greatest flooding disaster in California history; the floods that suddenly hit in northern and central California, killing 67 people. Discharges from the Klamath River were one and a half to two times greater than recorded peak flows. More than 300,000 people were flooded out of their homes and businesses. The financial loss was staggering.
But out of this disaster came a renewed sense of purpose to hold back the waters. For example, California Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman remembers his family being flooded out of their Visalia home and the resolve of his dad, Jack Chrisman, for construction of Terminus Dam built to control flows on the Kaweah River above the town. That dam and others have helped to protect communities throughout the state from subsequent floods. And through the years certain levees in the Delta and along the major rivers were strengthened.
Today, however, we seem to lack the will to tackle major flood control – until a disaster hits and we face expensive emergency action. Certainly we live in a different time than 1955 when environmental values were not yet part of water resource planning decisions. We did develop in floodplains and we continue to do so. Is this development policy inevitable? And if that is what society chooses, why don’t we strengthen these levees before a Katrina disaster occurs? Is it time to get a “vision” of what we want the future California to look like and set a policy on levees and protection?
As Gary Pitzer writes in this issue of Western Water, today’s flood control system has been described as “broken.” He details increasing floodplain development, delays in fixing levee problem sites, continued need for environmental protection and the greater state liability for levee breaches. All lead to an ominous future if no action is taken.
In Memory of Dennis Underwood
A man who did have a vision of water in the West died recently. The world of California and Western water lost a leader with the death of Dennis Underwood. Dennis was a water expert, especially on Colorado River issues, who used his knowledge and skill to develop creative solutions. At the time of his death, he was the general manager of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He also had served as commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the first President Bush’s administration, and as executive director of the Colorado River Board of California.
I will remember Dennis for his vast knowledge of Colorado River issues and his ability to convey information to me and others without any sense of superiority. As MWD’s point person on the Colorado, he was involved in trying to solve all the issues on the Colorado River in recent years – including the interim surplus guidelines, the QSA and the development of the nation’s largest habitat conservation program. Dennis was successful because he was such a good negotiator, often saying that to be a good negotiator; you have to know the other person’s rights and interests better than they do.
In the News
State Seeks Rehearing of CALFED Environmental Ruling
Attorneys for the state are asking a state appellate court to reconsider an Oct. 7 decision that negated the legal adequacy of environmental documentation prepared for the CALFED program.
“We believe the court was wrong in the deficiencies it identified in the CALFED environmental documents,” said Mike Chrisman, secretary of the Resources Agency. “Our petition for rehearing points out the legal and factual mistakes made by the court, and we hope they will take a second look at these issues.”
The Third District Court of Appeal ruling said that officials failed to consider whether in fact increased exports of water from the Delta are an inarguable necessity to further the goals of the program. The development is the latest in a series of tumultuous episodes that have rocked the effort comprehensively deal with the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.
Agricultural and in-Delta interests challenged the legitimacy of the CALFED Record of Decision (ROD) in 2000, citing alleged discrepancies with the California Environmental Quality Act. The Court of Appeal upheld several findings of the lower court, including the conclusion that CALFED adequately analyzed the impact of the ROD on farming interests.
“From CALFED’s perspective, this couldn’t come at a worse time,” said Brian Gray, professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley’s Hasting School of Law.
The court’s opinion said the environmental document prepared for the ROD is “legally insufficient” because it fails to discuss the alternative of reduced exports and fails to discuss the environmental impacts of diverting water from various potential sources to meet the designated program goals. The ROD followed years of negotiations aimed at reducing conflict in the Delta through a plan to ensure water supply stability while committing to habitat preservation and restoration.
In the 224-page opinion, which in part reversed the findings of a lower court, Associate Justices Harry Hull, Richard Sims and M. Kathleen Butz found that CALFED approached its environmental review with the preconceived notion that inevitable growth in California necessitates a structured plan of increased water delivery from north to south. The state’s population is projected to reach 49 million by 2020, with half the growth occurring in southern California.
CALFED “appears not to have considered … smaller water exports from the Bay-Delta region which might, in turn, lead to smaller population growth due to the unavailability of water to support such growth,” the opinion says.
Gary Bobker, program director for the Bay Institute, called the ruling a “landmark decision,” and credited the court with prompting officials to consider the plight of the state’s stretched water supply. While not taking a stance on the issue, the justices said “the feasibility of … a reduced exports alternative is clear …”
Gray said the court’s finding “really challenges some long-standing assumptions [that] to some extent, we’ve all made” regarding the ability of existing water supplies to meet the pace of growth. “All the court is saying is the agency needs to engage in the analysis of a reduced exports alternative,” he said.
Should the appellate court opt not to rehear the case, the state asks that the case be sent back to the trial court to determine how the problems with the environmental review should be rectified.