Sacramento's Natomas basin is embraced by 18 miles of massive new levees, ensuring that 100,000 Natomas residents are safer from the mighty Sacramento River.
These new levees were completed at the end of 2012 at a cost of $400 million. The work produced some of the stoutest levees ever built in California.
It happened after local property owners taxed themselves to raise crucial seed money and because Sacramento flood control officials took enormous risks in launching construction themselves without the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in that role, which is customary.
The safety of Natomas residents, however, is still far from assured. There are 24 miles of levees that still need fixing, and there is little hope of starting that work anytime soon.
Completing "Fortress Natomas," as some have dubbed the massive levee project, is stalled by a political dispute in Washington, D.C., over earmark funding. A ban on earmarks a term used for projects that benefit the home district of one member of Congress has stalled approval of the remaining levee work for the past two years.
Meanwhile, more than 32,000 Natomas property owners living behind levees that still are not federally certified are required to buy flood insurance at a cost of at least $400 annually. The stalled levee work also prolongs a de facto ban on new construction in Natomas, once the locus of a Sacramento housing and retail boom.
"We're running out of time to do what we can do locally," said Sacramento Vice Mayor Angelique Ashby, who represents Natomas.
Ashby also sits on the board of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, which has led the levee construction effort. Seeing work stalled, she said, is frustrating to local officials who have grown accustomed to moving decisively on levee projects.
"We really need Congress to act this year. It's incredibly important," Ashby said. "This isn't, like, a little issue. It's a fourth of the city of Sacramento that lives in the basin."
How the work got done
The normal manner in which major levee projects get built is in partnership with the Army Corps, which typically funds the majority of the cost under long-standing federal cost-sharing agreements.
The federal bureaucracy that leads to approval of an Army Corps project is notoriously slow, even in the best of times, and usually requires a vote from Congress.
Sacramento city and county elected officials who sit on the SAFCA board learned in 2006 that Natomas levees failed Army Corps seepage criteria and also no longer met federal standards to withstand a 100-year flood.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency later imposed a flood-insurance requirement and rigid building standards, which require new construction to be elevated above the floodplain. The high cost of elevating structures amounts to a de facto building ban.
SAFCA was determined to expedite repairs, and proposed two property tax increases to begin work on the most critical levees. Both taxes were approved by local residents, and SAFCA began construction in 2008 instead of waiting for the Army Corps to take that lead role. Flood control bonds approved by voters statewide funded 70 percent of the work.
Under an alternative arrangement worked out with the Army Corps to satisfy federal cost-sharing requirements, SAFCA completed the most critical 18 miles of levee upgrades, and the federal agency agreed to do the rest once Congress gave its approval. That remaining work is estimated to cost at least another $410 million.
The Army Corps finished planning the remaining work on Dec. 30, 2010, with the signing of a "Chief's Report" by leaders of the agency. The next step was legislation to move the project through Congress.
The following month, control over the House of Representatives shifted to Republicans. Part of their agenda included controls on earmark spending, which many members in both parties agreed had been weighed down by so-called pork. In addition, many of the new conservative voices swept into office expressed strong opposition to an array of federal spending.
The new leaders of the House, with support from President Barack Obama, banned earmarks in January 2011, using a broad definition that meant that even simple project authorizations benefitting single districts would be blocked, including the Natomas bill.
That 24 miles of remaining Natomas levee work has been stalled ever since.
A frustrating stalemate
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, has appealed to House leaders on several occasions to modify the earmark ban, saying it has "profound and detrimental effects" on public safety and the local economy.
"If a levee broke, the damage would be devastating, similar to what was witnessed in New Orleans post-Katrina," Matsui wrote to Obama on Feb. 4, inviting him to tour the Natomas levees.
Three other flood protection projects, all in the Midwest, are similarly stalled. Approval of a larger Water Resources Development Act a traditional path for biennial approval of critical infrastructure projects across the nation has been on hold since 2007.
Congressional leaders still have not agreed on a new procedure to approve public works projects as an alternative to the earmark ban.
In addition to her stand-alone bill, Matsui has added the Natomas project to various drafts of a Water Resources Development Act in recent years. Each has been stalled by the earmark battle.
A new version was introduced in December by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Boxer's staff said the bill has bipartisan support and they are hopeful it will be approved this year.
Late last month, Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also introduced their own stand-alone Natomas levee bill in the Senate as a companion to Matsui's House bill.
Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, was recently appointed chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the committee that must review Matsui's bill. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, is the only remaining Republican in Congress from the Sacramento region. When pressed, he would not say whether he considers Natomas levees to be an earmark. He called the earmark ban "an important reform that I would defend."
McClintock, whose district does not include the city of Sacramento, said he had not seen Matsui's bill. But he said he would support stand-alone legislation to approve the project, under certain conditions.
One, he said, is a requirement that any federal money spent on Natomas levees be considered a loan that must be repaid by the beneficiaries namely the people who directly benefit from the levees.
This is a notion that has never been applied to any Army Corps levee project.
"I've got a responsibility to protect people in my district who have chosen not to live in a floodplain," McClintock said. "It's not fair to force them to subsidize the flood protection of others."
His other condition is that a Natomas levee bill must include authorization to build an Auburn dam as part of a comprehensive plan to protect the region from flooding.
An Auburn dam would create a massive new reservoir on the American River near the city of Auburn. The project could, indeed, improve flood protection for Sacramento under some scenarios. But it has been controversial for nearly half a century, largely due to environmental concerns. Also, earthquake faults at the dam site may make the reservoir itself a public safety risk.
The dam has not been comprehensively studied by any government agency in decades. In 2008, state officials revoked the federal government's water rights for the project.
In addition, Matsui is on record opposing the dam. "Simply put," she said, "there is no money and no support behind an Auburn dam."
Ashby, the Sacramento vice mayor, noted there is now $8.5 billion worth of property covered by federal flood insurance in the Natomas basin, a risk that far exceeds the cost of the levee work that remains.
"We've done our part," Ashby said. "I'm really proud of Sacramento. But it's time for the federal government to step in and support the efforts we've taken thus far."