Stuart Leavenworth

Stuart Leavenworth: Flood agency infighting puts us at risk

Published: Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012 - 10:09 am

To secure Sacramento's future, there is no more important issue than flood control. Few cities in the United States face such a threat of catastrophic inundation. To prevent a Katrina in California's state capital, federal, state and local flood-control agencies must have a healthy working relationship. Thousands of lives depend upon it.

Over the last several months and years, that relationship has deteriorated. The reasons are complex, and it's unclear if any one agency is the bad guy. But if these bureaucratic conflicts continue, it will set back efforts to protect Sacramento and many other communities in the Central Valley.

We need a peace treaty among the bureaucrats, and it can't come soon enough.

One big flashpoint is the subject of vegetation on levees. Following the flooding of New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started to more aggressively enforce its prohibition of trees and bushes on or near federal flood control levees. This was a bit of reversal for the Corps, particularly in California. Some of the trees and vegetation you now see along the American River Parkway, for instance, were planted by the Corps as mitigation for other projects.

Fearing that the Corps' stance will result in the clear-cutting of trees across many of the Central Valley's rivers and streams, conservation groups and state agencies have fought back.

Three groups – Friends of the River, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife – filed suit against the Corps in 2011. This year, the California Department of Fish and Game filed its own lawsuit against the Corps and its vegetation policy.

Relations have deteriorated ever since. On Aug. 23, the Corps announced that 17 levee systems in Sacramento, Stockton and three other cities would no longer be eligible for levee rehabilitation help following a serious flood.

Why? According to the Corps, levees in these areas had unpermitted "encroachments" – such as staircases and fences built onto the levees – and California hadn't adequately come up with a plan to address the long-standing problem.

The announcement hit Sacramento like a brickbat. Local elected officials hadn't been notified, and residents of the Pocket and other affected neighborhoods were immediately alarmed. What did this mean? If their property abutted the levee, would they have to tear out their backyards? Following a flood, would Sacramento itself have to pay for rehabilitation of a federal flood control levee?

U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui was one of those frustrated by the Corps announcement. In her view, it unnecessarily alarmed local residents, hurt the Corps' standing with its partners in flood control and distracted everyone from the bigger challenge of upgrading the region's flood control system.

"The Corps does great things," Matsui told me. "But sometimes they get off track."

Corps officials say they had little choice but to make the announcement.

Inspections in 2010 showed unpermitted encroachments in the 17 levee systems, including stretches of the Pocket and Little Pocket. If not addressed, these encroachments could directly compromise the integrity of the levees, or prevent engineers from detecting and stopping seepage during a major flood.

"Those are the two main problems with encroachment," said Ryan Larson, the levee safety program manager for the Corps' Sacramento District. "That is why we take them so seriously."

Although the problems were documented in 2010, the Corps allowed them to continue under an agreement with the Central Valley Flood Protection Board.

That agreement expired in June, said Larson. The Corps had hoped the state would detail plans for getting levees in compliance through a report it finalized in July, the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. But according to the Corps, that plan didn't demonstrate how the state would work to comply with federal levee standards.

All that is true, but some in the flood control community wonder if the Corps action may have been some form of retaliation against the state. When approved last month, the state's Central Valley Flood Protection Plan included a provision rejecting the Corps' policy on removing vegetation from levees. That further miffed Corps officials, already frustrated by the Department of Fish and Game's lawsuit.

I've written critically about the Corps in the past, but I also understand this agency's dilemma. Following the death and destruction of Katrina, the Corps was held legally responsible, and Congress raked agency leaders over the coals for not strictly enforcing levee standards in New Orleans.

Responding to Congress, the Corps is now enforcing those standards, even if they are overly rigid, outdated and in conflict with other laws and priorities.

The sad fact, unfortunately, is it wasn't levee vegetation or encroachments that caused the flooding of New Orleans. It was a poorly designed system.

The Corps has since redesigned that system – at a cost of $14 billion – to prevent storm surges from flowing into Lake Pontchartrain and overwhelming levees.

And guess what? The system worked pretty well last week in protecting New Orleans from Hurricane Isaac.

Here in Sacramento, we need to be similarly focused on the big picture, instead of getting bogged down in bureaucratic fights over levee trees and staircases. To do that, we need our flood agencies to start working as partners again – and remember who they work for.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Stuart Leavenworth, Editorial page editor



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