Bowl of river

OK, let’s start with the most obvious thing about the Natomas basin. It’s called a “basin” for a reason, folks! The 53,000-acre expanse of land is a natural flood plain, a shallow bowl nestled between two rivers, an area that, ideally, should have been left to agricultural uses and/or protected as parks and wildlife preserves.

Well, hey, we know that horse has already left the barn. (There are now about 70,000 people—including the mayor—living in the “bowl.”) But we think the reminder puts any discussion of future development in Natomas in a much-needed context, i.e., city and county officials have known for many decades that the area is at giant risk of flooding. The levee breaches in 1986—the ones that caused massive flooding in Natomas and parts of downtown—were cases in point.

But what happened in ’86 didn’t stop local politicians once opportunity knocked. When the federal government determined in 1998 that the area’s flood protection met a “100 year” standard (meaning the area had a 1-in-100 chance of flooding in any given year), city and country officials jumped at the chance to stage a building boom in Natomas. The flood-prone region quickly became one of the Sacramento area’s fastest growing locales. Soon the population living in the “bowl” was larger than that of the entire city of Davis.

The growth spurt ended about a year ago, when the levees were found to lose some stability. But it was last month when the Army Corps of Engineers came out with its startling report that said Natomas’ flood risk might be three times worse than had been assumed. Based on this, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is set, probably by December, to designate Natomas a “flood hazard zone,” a label that will put the brakes on new development until the levees are back up to the “100 year” mark.

Here’s where our local politicos come in. First, like defensive school children, they attacked the Corps’ report. Mayor Heather Fargo particularly contested the methodology the Corps used in determining the 1-in-30 designation. It’s true the report reflects a new, post-Hurricane Katrina “risk analysis” method of calculating flood danger. But shouldn’t we acknowledge that Katrina likely taught the Corps some lessons?

Secondly, inexplicably, city leaders have become hell-bent on red-lighting new construction projects for Natomas before the FEMA designation comes down. We were stunned when council members voted a few weeks ago to support annexation of 577 acres of Natomas, and the build-out of 3,500 houses and apartments by Angelo Tsakopoulos’ Greenbriar development.

Are these people crazy or just in denial? As we’ve all heard countless times by now, there is no urban city in America more at risk of experiencing a massively destructive, New Orleans-type flood than Sacramento. Yes, the local economy is struggling with the housing crisis. But now is no time to play games with developers. Sacramento leaders should enforce an outright moratorium on future development in Natomas and shift their attention to where it should have been all along, protecting the city and existing residents of the “bowl.”