State and local officials have preached for months that California’s historic drought could be “the new normal,” the precursor to more frequent yearslong episodes of hotter temperatures, less rainfall and lower Sierra snowpack.
Californians across the state have responded en masse to the call for lifestyle changes, curtailing water use, particularly when it comes to watering their lawns.
And some have responded in a manner more concerning to government officials: They canceled their flood insurance.
The number of federal flood insurance policies active in California has fallen by 30,000, or 12 percent, since the drought began in 2012, according to data from the National Flood Insurance Program.
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Sacramento, regularly ranked among American cities at greatest risk of a devastating flood, has the most active flood insurance policies in California. But here, too, the number of policies fell by almost 6,000, or 12 percent, in three years.
“We’ve been in drought. People feel that their property is not at the same level of risk as during a non-drought year,” said Ricardo Pineda, a supervising engineer in the flood management division of the California Department of Water Resources.
Regular homeowner’s insurance usually doesn’t cover floods. Tens of thousands of Californians are required to purchase flood insurance because they live in areas at high risk of flooding during heavy rain years. Others are at risk but not mandated by law to buy insurance. Some buy it, some don’t.
As strange as it sounds, California could see extensive flooding this year. A strong El Niño weather pattern is expected that could bring heavy rains.
“We are worried that we will have warmer storms at higher elevations,” Pineda said. “The reservoirs will absorb a lot of it. But there are streams not controlled by reservoirs.”
Flood insurance costs range from a few hundred dollars to well more than $1,000 annually, depending on risk. Most policies require a 30-day waiting period before coverage takes effect.
Other factors unrelated to drought contributed to the recent drop in flood insurance policies, Pineda said. Engineers have improved some California levees, including in Sacramento, so that flood insurance for some homeowners is now optional. Also, some flood insurance prices have increased significantly as the federal government pays down debt related to Hurricane Katrina. The number of active flood insurance policies fell nationwide from 2012 to 2015, but not as sharply as in California.