California agencies must shift flood management approach to work with nature

In areas where rivers are allowed to expand into historic floodplains like the Yolo Bypass, water birds and native fish have seen substantial benefits.
In areas where rivers are allowed to expand into historic floodplains like the Yolo Bypass, water birds and native fish have seen substantial benefits.

It’s hard to think about floods after five years of drought. But in Sacramento, we don’t have a choice.

Scientists tell us that climate change will bring drier years and more severe storms. Recent history shows this threat, as California has bounced between drought and flood. As the recent catastrophic flooding in Baton Rouge, La., makes clear, we can’t wait for rising waters to plan for floods.

An overhaul in how California prepares for and manages floods is long overdue. Our current flood control system was designed and built long before we understood the consequences of disconnecting our rivers from their natural floodplains. New science and the growing threat of climate change indicate we need a new approach.

Fortunately, the California Legislature passed the Central Valley Flood Protection Act of 2008, requiring a new plan to improve Central Valley flood protection and environmental conditions.

There are important differences between this new approach and the “business-as-usual” flood management regime of the past. Among these is a call to simultaneously reduce flood risk and enhance fish and wildlife habitat. The 2008 law directed state agencies to develop a conservation strategy identifying opportunities for supporting native species while improving public safety.

These multibenefit projects work with natural processes rather than fight them. For example, giving rivers room to expand during floods – instead of building higher levees – reduces flood damage and simultaneously creates fish and bird habitat. This win-win approach can also preserve farms, improve water quality, recharge groundwater and increase recreational opportunities.

Levees cut off 95 percent of the Central Valley’s historic floodplain – eliminating habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and other wetland-dependent species, separating fish from their food supply, and depriving the Sacramento River of nutrients for aquatic organisms. Science demonstrates that the way we manage floodplains is a major reason that salmon and wetland species are struggling.

But we don’t need to choose between protecting communities from floods and protecting natural resources. In fact, the California Department of Water Resources has developed a conservation strategy that shows how multibenefit projects to improve flood protection, the environment and water supply can go together.

These benefits are well documented. In areas where rivers are allowed to expand into carefully managed portions of historic floodplains, water birds and native fish have seen substantial benefits. Even this past spring, in the midst of the drought, floodplain habitat in the Yolo Basin was inundated, providing valuable habitat.

The idea is simple: We can grow food for people in summer, and in fall and winter some fields can be temporarily flooded to grow food for birds and fish. By letting some strategic areas get wet more frequently and for longer periods of time, we can reduce the flood risk while improving environmental conditions for salmon, water birds and critically endangered species.

The Central Valley Flood Protection Board is in the process of updating the Central Valley Flood Plan. The new plan will be finalized in 2017. As it prepares this update, the flood board should formally adopt the conservation strategy and include it as a core element of the updated plan. That was the consensus recommendation at a recent flood board meeting of a remarkably diverse coalition of stakeholders, including local flood management, agricultural, water supply and environmental groups.

The law and science are clear: State agencies must shift their flood management approach to work with nature instead of against it. This multibenefit approach will help save lives, money and our environment.

The flood board’s leadership will be instrumental in updating the state’s water policy and creating a safer and more prosperous future for California’s people, fish and wildlife.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, represents the 3rd Senate District. Contact her at