Once and future flood

If any good can be said to have come from the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina, perhaps it’s that the televised images of flooding in New Orleans undoubtedly helped persuade California voters to get serious about flood protection. Now, thanks to the passage of Proposition 1E last fall, local property owners have a chance to dramatically improve Sacramento’s flood safety for a fraction of the true cost of the projects involved.

That’s extremely fortunate, and we support the proposal by the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency to raise $326 million in local matching funds so that Sacramento can receive more than $2.7 billion from the state and federal government to bolster levees and improve Folsom Dam. For an average annual assessment of $67, property owners can more than double their level of protection.

That’s a bargain flood-prone Sacramento can’t afford to pass up, and we urge property owners to approve the assessment when SAFCA puts it to a mail-in vote in March. At the same time, we think it’s important to remember why so many local residents are currently at risk in the first place.

Consider the Natomas basin: Essentially a shallow bowl lying between the Sacramento and American rivers, the area is a natural flood plain that would have been best left to agricultural use. Levee breaches caused flooding there in 1986, prompting a building moratorium that lasted until 1998, when federal officials decided that levees met the “100 year” standard of flood protection. This standard, which means the area has a one-in-100 annual chance of flood, was enough for the city and county to approve a building boom that brought more than 60,000 new residents to the area.

Now, a more recent federal study has concluded that the levees are being undermined by seepage and do not meet the minimum 100-year standard. Unlike in 1986, when the area was largely farmland, a levee breach now would mean that tens of thousands of homes could quickly be submerged, some of them under 20-30 feet of water. Already, residents are facing mandatory flood-insurance requirements.

That’s why it’s imperative to approve the SAFCA plan, but equally important to place a moratorium on future development in Natomas and other flood-prone areas. State officials have made it clear that they want Sacramento to hold off on further flood-plain development, at least until local levees can be improved, and city and county officials need to do so immediately, despite the pressure they’re bound to receive from developers and trade associations.

Under any sensible development plan, the flood-prone areas along the rivers would be designated for agriculture, parks and wildlife preserves. Sacramento needs to move forward with flood-control improvements, but also curtail future flood-plain development. Otherwise, we’re likely to find state taxpayers less willing to bail us out the next time the levees need repair.