Before the flood

Sacramento officials engage in risky behavior to beat new flood-control regs

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and public officials atop a levee near the Natomas flood basin. The governor announced last week the fast-tracking of $200 million in levee-improvement funds.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and public officials atop a levee near the Natomas flood basin. The governor announced last week the fast-tracking of $200 million in levee-improvement funds.


Standing atop a levee overlooking the Natomas flood basin, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the posse of public officials were in agreement. As the governor put it, after Hurricane Katrina, Californians realized “our levees are in worse shape than the levees in New Orleans … then all of a sudden everyone started paying attention.”

Watching bodies float by on the evening news has that effect.

Hurricane Katrina surged through the Gulf Coast in August 2005, breaching levees, flooding cities and killing nearly 2,000 people. Since then, approximately $500 million has been spent shoring up the Sacramento region’s levees; the governor and company gathered in Natomas last week to announce the fast-tracking of another $200 million for local levee improvements.

There was a certain urgency in the air, and not just because many of those in attendance have been around the region long enough to recall the devastating winter floods of 1986 and 1997.

Against the terra-cotta backdrop of Natomas’ sprawling rooftops, Schwarzenegger acknowledged “an economy that has slowed down because of the housing market and because of the subprime mortgage crisis.” Spending money on levee improvements won’t just protect the public safety, he insisted, it also will create jobs. “So we are killing two birds with one stone. That is the great thing about this here,” he said.

No official in attendance was more grateful, and more in agreement with the two-birds-with-one -stone theory, than Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo. City officials have made no secret of their desires to continue full-tilt development of the Natomas basin, a vital source of revenue that accounts for more than half of the city’s new development.

But rather than killing two birds with one stone, are public officials and business leaders, by insisting that development continue before the improvements are completed and levees recertified, putting the cart before the horse? Fargo admitted that winter construction is a risky business.

“I think of winters, because every construction season that we have to go through means we’re living through another winter behind levees that need work,” she said.

In fact, Natomas residents may be living behind levees that are three times more risky than once thought, according to a new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study released last month. The levees had previously been certified to withstand a 1-in-100 flood, meaning the sort of catastrophic flood event that has a 1-in-100 chance of occurring in any given year. Using formula revised in Katrina’s wake, the Corps now says the Natomas levees provide just 1-in-30 flood protection.

As a result, the Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to officially reclassify the 53,000-acre Natomas basin as a flood-hazard zone this December, a determination that could add millions to the cost of new construction, require home and business owners to purchase flood insurance and potentially place a moratorium on any new construction.

A $400 million levee-improvement project is slated to begin this summer to shore up levees to reduce the Natomas flood risk. By 2010, the levees, upgraded with berms, would provide the basin with 100-year flood protection. In 2012, the levees would be stout enough to withstand floods occurring once every 200 years.

“When the levee strengthening is completed, Natomas will be very well protected from flooding,” said Joe Countryman, president of MBK Engineers, a Sacramento consulting firm on flood control.

But Sacramento officials are not inclined to play it safe until 2012. Instead, concerned that a building moratorium will put the final nail in the local economy’s coffin, city and county officials are racing to get new projects on line before the FEMA regulations go into effect.

One of those projects is the proposed $1.3 billion expansion at Sacramento International Airport. Hardy Acree, director at the 41-year-old facility, hopes to have the final building permits approved by May. “Waiting for recertification of the ability of local levees to withstand 100- to 200-year flood levels per the new data would increase the cost of the much-needed project by hundreds of millions of dollars,” Acree said.

The airport sits on the northern edge of the city limits and is owned and operated by Sacramento County. Tens of thousands of people fly through it daily, and Acree cites the terminal’s increasing international traffic as one of the primary reasons for expansion.

“2007 closed with double-digit increases in international traffic,” he said. “Failing to ready the airport to receive anticipated growth and provide facilities that meet the needs of passengers and tenants alike would be erroneous.”

Nevertheless, the need for expansion does not negate the airport’s flood risk, according to FEMA spokesman Frank Mansell. “International faces the same flood risk as every home and business in the Natomas basin,” Mansell said.

According to Mansell, if the Sacramento River were to break through its east-side levees, the Natomas basin would be inundated with 20 to 23 feet of water, an inland sea double the height of Arco Arena’s basketball rims.

Arco and the airport aren’t the only local entities engaging in risky behavior. Recently, the Sacramento City Council voted 9-0 to annex about 600 acres of farmland in North Natomas for Angelo Tsakopoulos’ Greenbriar housing development. It’s located between Elkhorn Boulevard and Interstate 5 on Highway 99’s west side. Rose Tribolet, vice president of the Natomas Community Association, is dismayed that the council is pushing for new housing development before the levees are strengthened.

“This addition of new homes is part of a push to put in a light rail line between downtown, Natomas and the airport,” Tribolet said. For her, strengthening the levees should be the priority, no matter how long it takes and how much it costs.

The Sacramento region is no stranger to flooding and shifting flood control regulations. Take the storms of 1986 and 1997 in Sacramento. In the former downpour, Natomas levees lost some stability, according to the Corps. Water pressure from rising river flows churned through levee foundations, washing away soil and developing into “boils” or even full-blown breaks.

After the 1986 floods, the Corps pinpointed stretches of Natomas levees where the flood risk was greatest. The city and county imposed a Natomas building moratorium. From 1990 to 1993, the Corps built better drains and foundation walls. The Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, formed in 1989, joined the effort 15 years ago.

The 1997 storms exceeded those in 1986, with more levee seepage and boils. Levees failed at points on the Sacramento River Flood Control Project outside the Sacramento region. Nonetheless, the next year, the Corps and FEMA certified that the Natomas levees met the 1-in-100 flood safety standard. The city and county building moratorium ended.

As a result, new homes and businesses sprouted where empty lots once pushed up weeds. Shopping malls anchored by corporate America icons such as Wal-Mart rose to meet demand from owners of new tract homes. Swept along by low-interest rates, some homeowners were able to live beyond their means, using the rising prices of their abodes as ATMs. The local-housing bubble became a motor for employment in the building, financing and furnishing of existing and new real estate, part of a nationwide trend.

But as the Sacramento housing market grew white hot, the Corps was re-evaluating the strength of the region’s levee system. Based on extensive study with private experts, the Corps changed its levee certification of 1-in-100 flood protection to less than 1-in-30 years. The change is based partly on study of a stretch of the Sacramento River east levee. Findings revealed more problems due to water seeping through foundations, plus deficient levee height and slope.

FEMA will impose a requirement that new building or remodeling in the Natomas basin must be elevated to a 20- to 23-foot height beginning this December. Businesses and homeowners with federal-backed mortgages must buy flood insurance, a new FEMA requirement.

The new expense arrives amid a massive devaluation of home prices from the housing crash, an estimated loss of $8 trillion of wealth. (The United States is a $14 trillion economy.) Further, the housing market fall is raising long-term unemployment, according to recent job figures. A worsening labor market also reduces property and utility tax revenues to local government.

Standing atop the Natomas levee last week, financial pressures certainly appeared to weigh heavier than public-safety concerns. Putting the cart before the horse is acceptable, as long as you’re killing two birds with one stone. Asked if it would be more prudent to declare a building moratorium in Natomas, Schwarzenegger was adamant in his denial.

“No, no, absolutely not,” he said. “That makes sense to you, but not to us.”