Obama signs bill authorizing Natomas levee repairs

A major roadblock to completion of critical levee repairs in Sacramento’s Natomas basin was cleared Tuesday when President Barack Obama signed the Water Resources Reform and Development Act into law.

The act, blocked for years by partisan battles in Congress, authorizes 34 projects across the nation totaling $12.3 billion. Among them, it directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to strengthen 24 miles of levees protecting Natomas, a project estimated to cost $760 million. The Natomas floodplain north of downtown Sacramento is home to 100,000 people and property worth more than $7 billion. A levee breach could put many homes and businesses in the area under 20 feet of water, according to federal flood maps.

Since 2008, when its levees were deemed vulnerable to seepage, Natomas has been under a de facto building moratorium and flood-insurance requirement while the legislation languished.

“The people of Natomas have waited too long for this day, but because of a lot of hard work, we are finally here,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, who fought for years to move the legislation along.

The Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency completed upgrades to 18 miles of the most vulnerable Natomas levees in 2012, largely thanks to property tax increases approved by Sacramento voters. The remaining levee work has been stalled since, because the Army Corps lacked federal authorization to complete the repairs. Obama’s approval of the legislation fixes that problem.

Army Corps officials cautioned, however, that levee construction won’t resume in Natomas overnight, or even next month. Preliminary engineering work is required before construction can begin, and Congress has not yet appropriated money for the work. The law signed Tuesday only authorizes construction; it does not pay for it.

“We are going to get to construction as quickly as we possibly can,” said DeDe Cordell, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps in Sacramento. “Fixing Natomas levees is one of the corps’ highest priorities.”

Matsui helped secure $1 million in the current Army Corps budget to launch the remaining project design and engineering work. But more is needed, especially for construction.

“I am confident that I will be able to continue securing funding for the project that keeps it on schedule and gets it completed as soon as possible,” Matsui said.

Cordell said the plan approved by Congress reflects an estimate of the largest possible construction footprint. A lot of design work remains in order to refine the project and organize it into scheduled phases that can be paced with the annual construction season and available funding. She said the corps hopes to start construction “as early as 2017.”

The city of Sacramento is already negotiating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to lift the building moratorium. Only hours after Obama signed the bill, the city and its partners in Sacramento and Sutter county government sent FEMA a letter officially requesting that the moratorium be lifted.

The mechanics of this process, known as remapping, are time-consuming and complicated. FEMA must verify that a certain percentage of the flood risk in Natomas has been abated and that the remaining work is certain to be completed. The process typically takes 12 to 18 months, said Jim McDonald, senior planner with the city. FEMA officials have said they would try to expedite the application.

“They have committed to making an attempt to get this done in nine months,” McDonald said. “We certainly hope they’re going to make that deadline, but realistically it’s probably going to take a little longer.”

Meanwhile, developers in Natomas have thousands of new housing units and other construction projects on hold.

“We’re looking forward to getting back to work,” David Ragland, senior project manager with GBD Communities and chairman of the North State Building Industry Association, said in a statement. “The homebuilding industry has a long history of working in Natomas, and we’re extremely pleased to see that both existing and future housing in the area will be sufficiently protected.”

Since the 2008 FEMA ruling, anyone with a federally backed mortgage in Natomas – which includes nearly everyone except cash buyers and those with paid-off mortgages – has had to pay federally mandated flood insurance. Natomas residents typically pay about $475 per year in flood insurance.

Flood insurance will continue to be mandatory until Natomas levees are certified for 100-year flood protection. That won’t happen until after the Army Corps completes the levee work years from now.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who attended the bill-signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., called the new law “a vital public safety issue and economic development issue.”

“Natomas has been percolating,” Johnson said, “and there’s a lot of pent-up energy, and that community is going to boom in a responsible way.”

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