Levees protecting most of the city of Sacramento and 15 other areas of the Central Valley were declared on Thursday to have failed federal maintenance criteria. As a result, those levees are no longer eligible for federal money to rebuild if damaged in a storm.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made the declaration after concluding that a new state plan to improve Central Valley levees does not provide enough detail to ensure that maintenance problems, such as erosion and intruding structures, will be fixed.
The affected areas include 40 miles of levees wrapping most of the city of Sacramento on the American and Sacramento rivers. This system of levees, known on flood-control maps as Maintenance Area 9, includes the south bank of the American River from about Bradshaw Road downstream to the confluence with the Sacramento River, then downstream from there nearly to Courtland.
The problems, according to the Corps, include many locations where homes, swimming pools, fences and other structures are built too close to the levee, or in some cases, on the levee itself.
The poster child for this problem is Sacramento's Pocket neighborhood, where encroaching structures leave no room for the 15-foot-wide maintenance corridor required by the Corps.
This is a long-standing problem, one that would be difficult and expensive to fix.
"We understand this costs money, and money is a fiscal challenge for local governments," said Col. William Leady, commander of the Corps' Sacramento district.
"Levee safety standards need to be as uncompromising as floodwaters are. That's the rationale behind why we're kind of being hard-line."
The development marks another point of conflict between the engineers and local agencies.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Corps began imposing its maintenance criteria uniformly across the nation. Previously, it had allowed a measure of local flexibility for unique conditions.
One flash point in California over the new approach has been trees. The maintenance criteria require local agencies to remove all trees and shrubs from levees, and permit only grass.
Previously in California, the Corps has allowed trees on levees, and planted thousands of trees itself as part of its own levee rehabilitation and repair projects.
Trees are not the issue in the latest action by the Corps. But the circumstances are similar.
Tim Kerr, general manager of the American River Flood Control District, said the Corps has known about encroachments on area levees for many years, and has long accepted them.
"Now the Corps is saying they no longer find those acceptable," said Kerr. "I don't think it's our highest problem we should deal with. We just need common sense on their end, which indicates that not all of these encroachments are a threat to the levees."
Separate portions of the levees in Maintenance Area 9 are maintained by the city, by Kerr's district, and by the state Department of Water Resources.
"We have people whose houses are built up right next to the levee," said City Councilman Darrell Fong, who lives in the Pocket. "We are very concerned. There's going to be a lot of discussion in the next several days."
City could lose 100-year flood certification
The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses Corps of Engineers data to decide whether a community should be stripped of its 100-year flood certification. If that were to happen, thousands of Sacramento homeowners could be required to buy flood insurance at a cost of $1,200 or more every year.
Kathleen Schaefer, FEMA regional engineer, said the agency will weigh Thursday's announcement by the Corps as one of many factors in deciding whether Sacramento can still withstand a 100-year storm, defined as a flood with a 1 percent chance of striking in any given year.
Schaefer said FEMA will ask whoever last certified Sacramento's levees if they still stand behind that certification following Thursday's decision by the Corps. If they don't, she said, FEMA will begin a remapping effort.
Kerr said the last agency to certify the levees in Maintenance Area 9 was the Corps. This would seem to make remapping likely.
Even so, Shaefer said, FEMA will not begin remapping until 2014 as part of a larger regional mapping effort. This could buy Sacramento some time.
One way Sacramento will use that time is to "self-certify" its levees, said Tim Washburn, planning director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency.
Rather than relying on the Corps to certify its levees, as it has in the past, SAFCA will hire its own engineer to decide if the levees meet FEMA criteria, which are different from those set by the Corps.
The SAFCA board of directors set this process in motion in July, Washburn said, and it could be complete a year from now.
"I'm not expecting that levee accreditation would say you need a wholesale change in the relationship between the residential properties and the levees that has existed over these many years," Washburn said of the encroachment problem. "There may be some particularly egregious ones that they would say should be addressed."
State officials surprised at feds' criticism of plan
The Corps announcement Thursday is not the result of new levee inspections. The Corps is relying on inspections done between 2009 and 2011.
Instead, the change results from the expiration of a treaty of sorts with the state.
In 2009, the Corps of Engineers agreed to delay enforcing the national maintenance standards in California until the state Department of Water Resources completed the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. This new document, approved in June by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, provides a path to comply with Corps rules.
Jay Punia, the board's executive officer, called it a "high-level planning document" to address broad deficiencies, such as floodplain management. It defers specifics such as encroachment and erosion problems to nine different regional planning efforts, which are just now getting started.
It is this deferral of specifics, apparently, that the Corps objects to.
"It's a great long-term plan," said the Corps' Leady. "It just doesn't go into the kind of detail that you would need to meet the requirements."
State officials said they were "surprised" and "disappointed" by this conclusion.
George Qualley, a retired annuitant at the state Department of Water Resources who oversees flood management issues, said federal funding for levee repairs in the Central Valley has amounted to about $10 million a year on average since the 1980s.
In some years, however, it has added up to much more. After floods in 1997, for instance, he said the federal contribution to levee rehabilitation reached $100 million.
Other sources of recovery money are available, Qualley said, including state and local levee agencies and congressional appropriation. So the loss of funding from the Corps does not mean damaged levees won't be repaired.
Other areas affected by Thursday's announcement include Sacramento's Natomas basin, already under a flood-insurance mandate because of previously identified deficiencies. Many of these deficiencies along the Sacramento River were fixed in recent years by a massive levee strengthening project. But more work remains to be done, especially on the basin's eastern edge.
Also failing the maintenance standards are Knights Landing north of Sacramento; several levee systems just north of Stockton; and a long stretch of levee along the San Joaquin River west of Merced.
These levee systems can regain eligibility for federal funds by fixing the deficiencies or by submitting a plan to the Corps that prioritizes the problems and explains how they'll be fixed.
This latter approach, however, is not acceptable to the state, Qualley said. To get Corps approval for a compliance plan, he said, the state must agree to adhere to all Corps policies on levee maintenance. This includes the controversial vegetation policy that requires all trees and shrubs to be stripped from levees.