Editorial: A big step for Sacramento’s flood protection

Published: Friday, May. 16, 2014 - 12:00 am

In a huge milestone for Sacramento’s future, Congress appears ready to finally authorize finishing the Natomas levees.

In a rare instance of bipartisan agreement, a conference report on the first omnibus water and flood control bill since 2007 was filed Thursday and is expected to be approved on Tuesday in the House and shortly thereafter in the Senate.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to start work on its part of the massive levee project to safeguard more than 100,000 residents and $7 billion worth of property in the Natomas basin.

While Congress would still need to annually fund the project – estimated to cost between $600 million and $800 million – the best-case scenario is that construction would begin next year and the 24 miles of levees would be strengthened by 2020.

After years of effort, just getting this far is a major accomplishment.

The completion of the levees is as important to Natomas as the planned arena is for downtown Sacramento. Since the Federal Emergency Management Agency revoked the area’s 100-year flood protection rating in 2008, Natomas has effectively been under a building moratorium. Until the water bill is passed, funding approved and the moratorium lifted, any development – the reuse of the Sleep Train Arena site, for instance – would be prohibitively expensive.

Also, homeowners have been required to buy flood insurance. If a five-year construction schedule on the levees is approved and accepted by FEMA, their premiums could go down.

The state and region already have done their part to fix the levees. Property owners voted to raise their own taxes to help fund $410 million in upgrades along 18 miles of levees. That work began in 2007 under the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, which had hoped the levee project would be finished by 2012.

The federal portion of the project, however, has been bottled up in Congress, caught up by a ban on earmarks put in place after Republicans won control of the House in 2010. Officials worked around the ban by pushing to authorize all flood safety projects approved by the Corps’ chief of engineers, as the Natomas levees were in December 2010.

City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who represents Natomas and is among the local officials who have lobbied intensely on the levees, said while many more steps lie ahead, approval of the act will be a critical advance.

“Sacramento has waited too long for this day, but because of a lot of hard work, we are finally here,” added Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento, who has also toiled to make this happen.

Credit also goes to the House-Senate conference committee, led by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Republican Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, who had to reconcile different versions passed by their chambers last year.

The bill also includes other projects and provisions important to California. Among them: 41 miles of levees protecting the Sutter River Basin, including Yuba City; flood-control measures in the San Joaquin River Basin, and leeway on requirements to remove vegetation from levees. It includes major port, flood-control and other projects across the country.

On this legislation, members of Congress are poised to actually put their constituents’ needs ahead of partisanship. Now, if only they could bring the same attitude to other pressing issues facing the nation.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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