Natomas’ future

More than a decade ago, an SN&R writer interviewed Sacramento native Joan Didion about her then-new book, Where I Was From. Part of the conversation involved the development of Natomas, which Didion remembered fondly.

“It was always so beautiful,” she said, “even when it was underwater.”

That conversation came to mind with the recent news that the building moratorium in the Natomas area, enforced since 2008, could be lifted, at least partially, as early as this June. It definitely falls into the “good news, bad news” category.

On the good side, this means that upgrades and repairs to the levees that were the responsibility of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency are completed, giving us 18 miles of stronger levees.

However, those 18 miles account for less than half of the necessary work. Crucial repairs are still months—if not years—from being finished. Another 24 miles of levee will be repaired by the Army Corps of Engineers under approval granted by the Obama administration last summer. But the funding to proceed has not yet been allocated by Congress.

The drumbeat of progress says that the city needs new housing—and it needs the revenue from development. It seems inevitable that building will resume in Natomas, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. It also won’t be cheap.

But watch the boom get started, first in projects that were in process when the moratorium began, then expanding to new projects. And, once the drought ends, the people who’ve invested their savings for a decent place to live will once again wonder if the levees will hold.

Simply repairing and improving the levees doesn’t remove the risk. As a spokesperson for Friends of the River told SN&R almost four years ago—and as the Corps of Engineers acknowledges—the simple fact is that Natomas is going to be a flood risk for the foreseeable future. It’s a geographic reality: unless we’re in a drought like this one, the rivers will flood.

Levees are good, but they cannot stop nature. Flood-control measures like levees and dams work really well in some circumstances, but it is extreme hubris to think that waterways that once regularly turned Natomas into a gigantic wetland cannot, given the right circumstances, do it again.

The American River will, once again, scour away at the riverbanks. The Sacramento River will not suddenly drop 20 or so feet, placing it below the Natomas basin. It’s a flood basin. It’s not smart to put anything there that can’t be easily hosed off and fixed up after the water goes down. That makes it a great place for baseball diamonds and soccer fields and a lousy place for a home.

So, rather than surrender to continued development in a flood basin, we urge the city, developers and homebuyers to look elsewhere. Look at established neighborhoods, and perhaps at changes that will put older homes in reach of first-time buyers. Continue aggressively pursuing infill development. When planning expansions, let’s aim for sustainable, healthy community-building in places not naturally so prone to flooding. It’s one thing to deal with clogged storm drains and another entirely to face being wiped out by a levee breach.