After more than a year of delay, critical work to strengthen levees in Sacramento’s Natomas Basin is authorized to resume following a crucial vote Tuesday in Congress.
The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to approve the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. Along with many other projects across the nation, the bill authorizes a $1 billion effort to bolster Natomas area levees responsible for protecting nearly 100,000 people and $7 billion in property. The project, to be completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been stalled for more than a year while Congress fought over the bill.
The Senate is expected to approve a similar version of the legislation later this week, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign the measure soon after. Approval by the House was considered the major roadblock, as lawmakers battled for years over spending ideology.
Congress historically has sought to approve a comprehensive water infrastructure bill every two years to pay for levees, navigational systems and water projects across the nation. The last such bill, however, was approved seven years ago, and many flood-control projects, including the Natomas levee upgrades, have been delayed as a result.
The House approved the bill with only four members in opposition. Among the key supporters was Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, who pressed hard for the bill over the last several years.
“I think everybody in the House understands what Natomas is now,” Matsui said of that effort. “The people of Natomas have waited too long for this day, but because of a lot of hard work, we are finally here.”
The drama over Natomas levees began in 2006. That’s when the Corps ruled that the 42 miles of levees ringing the bowl-shaped region were vulnerable to seepage and 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 flood plain. The high cost of such construction amounts to a de facto building ban that has been in place in Natomas since December 2008. Property owners with federally backed mortgages also have been required to pay for flood insurance since that time.
The Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, overseen by a board of elected city and county officials, was determined to expedite repairs rather than wait for the Corps to take the lead, which is the traditional path. SAFCA proposed two property tax increases to fund work on the most critical levees, both of which were approved by local residents. SAFCA began construction on those critical 18 miles of levees in 2008 – those on the north and east flanks of Natomas. Flood control bonds approved by voters statewide funded 70 percent of the work.
The Corps agreed to reinforce the remaining 24 miles of Natomas levees once Congress authorized the project. That work is estimated to cost at least another $600 million. The Corps finished preliminary plans for that work on Dec. 30, 2010.
The next step was legislation to approve the project, which finally began moving with Tuesday’s vote in the House.
“It’s just really exciting, because we’ve waited so long to get over this particular hurdle today,” said Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who represents part of Natomas and also chairs the SAFCA board of directors. “It’s a huge relief.”
Barbara Hayes, president and CEO of the Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization, called Tuesday’s vote crucial for the economic fortunes of Natomas and the broader capital region. A number of development projects in Natomas, once Sacramento’s fastest-growing area, have been stalled by the building moratorium. The House vote opens a path to eliminate the moratorium, perhaps within one year.
Just one example of the projects affected is the planned reuse of the site that serves as current home to the Sacramento Kings basketball team, Sleep Train Arena, where a number of major development proposals are being considered.
“It will be an enormous economic boost for the region, there’s no question,” Hayes said.
It still could be years before construction resumes on the levees themselves. That’s because the legislation approved Tuesday authorized – but does not actually fund – the project. Separate appropriations legislation, or a specific allocation in the president’s budget, will be required to pay for Corps work on the project.
The project also involves a lot of difficult pre-construction activity, such as moving utilities and possibly buying out a number of homeowners to make way for larger levees.
But final approval of the legislation means the wheels will start turning almost immediately to lift the building moratorium. This can proceed because SAFCA has already completed half the investment to reinforce the levees, a federal requirement before building restrictions can be lifted on a project that is still under construction.
“We will be able to enter into the conversation with FEMA to get out of that designation, and we won’t have that scenario in Natomas anymore,” Ashby said.
Ashby estimated the moratorium could be lifted in about one year, which would allow a backlog of construction projects to resume. This includes housing subdivisions that could not proceed, even though buyers put down deposits; a new baseball field complex at Natomas Regional Park that had to be built without bathrooms; schools that need new classrooms; and a handful of homeowners who could not rebuild after fires caused major damage.
“These are people’s homes here, and they couldn’t get on with their lives,” Matsui said. “That was really what kept me worried about this. What it means for them is they can start looking ahead to the future.”
Among other California projects, the bill authorizes strengthening 41 miles of levees in the Sutter River Basin, including those protecting Yuba City. It includes language that assures local communities will receive financial credit from the Corps for flood-control work they complete on their own in advance of federal participation. This step, which SAFCA employed in proceeding with the Natomas work, helps ensure faster completion of projects when local agencies are able to start flood-safety work on their own.
A number of environmental groups opposed language in the bill allowing the Corps to bypass some environmental review of water and flood-control projects. The goal is to speed up approval of projects, but critics say the changes restrict public input. Among other changes, the legislation shortens public comment periods and cuts the time limit for filing legal challenges to a project from six years to three.
Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser. McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Curtis Tate contributed to this report.