Even after years of drought, Sacramento's biggest worry over water is flood risk. The city is widely considered the second-most flood-prone major city in America, after New Orleans.
Sacramento's efforts to fight flooding got a major boost Thursday. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Rep. Doris Matsui's office announced that the region has been allocated nearly $1.8 billion to strengthen levees and raise Folsom Dam. The federal money also will be spent widening the Sacramento Weir, a mechanism north of the city that acts as a safety valve by channeling flood waters into the Yolo Bypass.
Construction work on most of the projects could begin next year and likely would take about 5 to 7 years to finish, said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, or SAFCA.
The allocation means the Army Corps "recognizes the risk that Sacramento has," Johnson said.
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Currently, significant portions of the area lack 100-year flood protection — that is, the fortification to withstand a flood that has a 1-in-100 chance of occurring in a given year. People who live in neighborhoods lacking 100-year protection — and that means thousands in Sacramento — must buy flood insurance.
The projects that received funding Thursday, along with a separate project that will rebuild 24 miles of levees around the Natomas Basin, will elevate Sacramento to 300-year flood protection.
In total, the Army Corps allocated $17 billion for flood projects around the country Thursday, as part of a congressional appropriation in February.
“It’s extremely significant that the Sacramento region has received such a substantial portion of this overall funding," said Matsui, D-Sacramento, in a prepared statement. "This is a huge milestone for our region."
The Army Corps plans to strengthen levees on the Sacramento River in the Pocket neighborhood, along Arcade Creek and on the Natomas East Main Drainage Canal. Raising Folsom Dam by 3.5 feet will increase flood-control storage space in Folsom Lake by 40,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.
The massive regional floods of 1986 and 1997 tested the Sacramento area's flood defenses like never before, and the region has poured $2 billion into levee upgrades and other work in the past 20 years.
But it wasn't until 2008 that the area's true level of risk became apparent. That's when the Federal Emergency Management Agency, employing stricter standards following Hurricane Katrina, declared that the levees surrounding Natomas lacked the minimal 100-year protection. Without huge upgrades in levees, FEMA said all new buildings would have to be raised as much as 20 feet to meet agency rules.
The city imposed a building moratorium in Natomas, and SAFCA scrambled to gain support from state and federal authorities to improve the region's defenses. The levees around Natomas have been partially rebuilt, and although the basin hasn't yet reached 100-year protection, the levee work was enough to persuade the city to lift the moratorium in 2015.
In addition to pressure from FEMA, the region also is facing a 2025 deadline, set by the state Legislature, to achieve 200-year protection. With the projects that now have been funded, the region will surpass that threshold.
Johnson said SAFCA and the state of California are required to eventually reimburse the Army Corps for a portion of the costs — 35 percent to 44 percent, depending on the particular project. What's unusual, though, is that the Army Corps has allocated 100 percent of the funding up front instead of on a year-to-year basis.
"It's a very rare occasion to get fully funded up front," he said. It enables the project to get started more quickly, he said.
He said SAFCA already is raising the money for its share; the region's property owners voted in 2016 to increase their flood-protection fees by $42 a year, to a total of $99, to pay for the improvements. The recently passed state budget provides $170 million toward these projects, although Johnson said the state still needs to do more in future years.