Tempted toward the flood

The devil and development in Natomas

Drawing the line: Army Corps of Engineers planner Thomas R. Adams says Sacramento could protect itself from flooding by building a levee across the Natomas basin and stopping further development of the area. He also says it will never happen.

Drawing the line: Army Corps of Engineers planner Thomas R. Adams says Sacramento could protect itself from flooding by building a levee across the Natomas basin and stopping further development of the area. He also says it will never happen.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The Devil has been cast out of Sacramento’s lowlands, but heads are still spinning in Natomas.

Building levees that reclaim land for development—such as those that provide the Natomas Basin with half as much protection as enjoyed by the residents of New Orleans—started out in the 16th and 17th centuries as a way to ward off evil, according to UC Davis river expert Jeff Mount.

“The whole concept of reclamation … it’s based on the concept of reclaiming land that was occupied by the devil,” said the geology professor, who goes around telling local and state officials that flood control is screwing up the essential ebb, flow and meanderings of California’s overworked and malnourished rivers.

So the swamp may be drained, but the demons still lurk, as residents wonder if they’ll be herded into Arco Arena to fight over toilets and Kings towels after the next Pineapple Express chugs into the valley.

The solution: Build bigger, stronger and more expensive levees and dams.

Do that, and more demons spring from the mud: Something resembling a grifter’s swampland investment scheme becomes priceless residential and commercial real estate. Local governments approve more homes, and Sacramento looks more and more like New Orleans, only without the benefit of Sodom-and-Gomorrah-style nightlife.

As Mount can explain in much more scientific terms, you can’t mix people and flood plain without courting Katrina-style disaster, and local officials continue to do that all up and down the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.

Is there another answer? Is shoring up levees that protect vast expanses of ag land up into Sutter County necessary to keep the flood from raging down Northgate Boulevard?

If you save the city, you will spur development, whether you intended to or not, local officials will tell you. But there’s one agency in town that could end the vicious circle of flood control begetting development that creates more potential victims in need of better flood control.

Thomas R. Adams is a senior water-resource planner with the Army Corps of Engineers. He looks at flood control the way a surgeon might look at a weak coronary artery. It can be fixed, if the patient is willing and the HMO will cough up enough money.

Presented with the question “Can one protect the populated parts of Sacramento without attracting more people into the flood plain?” his eyes brightened, and his finger did a swan dive onto a flood-plain map, halfway up the Natomas Basin.

“We could build a levee here,” he said proudly. Such a levee would cut the protected area in half, with higher flood protection to the south and the current flood protection to the north. Decide how far you want urban growth to spread, and a strategically placed levee can keep it from spilling over.

Although his agency is famous for moving mountains, Adams admits that though building such a barrier to development would be physically possible, neither the Corps nor anyone else would be likely to go there.

“You could imagine Sutter and Sacramento’s [reaction]. The politics of that would not be acceptable,” Adams said. Add to that the increased cost. Raising and reinforcing a levee along the Sacramento River or the Natomas Cross Canal or the Natomas East Main Drainage Canal requires only money for work and materials. Building across the basin would involve condemning a large swath of land.

And then there would be opposition from developers who invested in the northern land and have worked hard to get development approval. They expect that north and south will be protected equally from flooding and, consequently, are just as likely to be approved for development.

Meanwhile, the specter of Katrina has increased pressure to meet and even exceed the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency’s goal of 200-year protection (reducing the chance of parts of Natomas being 4 fathoms under to .5 percent per year).

City planners long have known the area is ripe for a catastrophic flood. Erosion and earthquakes that threaten levees throughout the valley are especially scary because in Natomas, floods could be deeper than 23 feet.

On top of that, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency only requires 100-year protection no matter how deep the potential flood, residents aren’t required to carry federal flood insurance. As soon as levee improvements raised the level of protection to 100 years and it was certified by the feds in 1998, residents started dumping their now-optional insurance. Coverage is now at 11 percent who carry cut-rate low-risk insurance, which, at about $300 a year, is the “cost of a high-priced screen door,” according to the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency’s executive director, Stein Buer.

Buer is philosophical about the relationship of development and flood control, saying you can’t simply avoid building in the flood plain. If that were the case, Sacramento would have been built much farther east.

“Sacramento was chartered in 1850,” he explained. “The very first year, it was flooded, and it has had many floods since then.” The confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers, while to the American Indians an unwise place to spend the winter, was “where the jobs were. The commerce was by the river. The river was the superhighway.”

By the same token, New Orleans was a strategic transshipment point for goods arriving from Europe, destined for the nation’s interior via the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Buer’s answer to the disconnect between economic necessity and flood control was unwittingly spelled out in November in a regional planning document by the Transportation and Air Quality Collaborative.

Although the group did not deal with flood control per se, Buer commends its embrace of “smart growth” principles, such as clustering high-density development around transportation hubs, principally by filling in gaps in already developed areas.

“We are not suggesting that you avoid flood-plain development altogether,” Buer said, “but where you do develop, you should seek to densely populate that area and defend it well.”

I.e., grow up, not out, as much as possible. That means building smaller areas of condos and maybe houses on smaller lots, not “sprawling all over the landscape,” forcing the protection of larger and larger expanses of flood plain. After limiting the area to be developed, then reduce the flood risk, perhaps to as low as a 1 in 1,000 probability of flooding, closer to the standard adopted by the Dutch in their efforts to hold back the North Sea.

“I’ve been there. I’ve stood on those levees. They’re armed with stone,” Buer recalled wistfully.

But such is not the reality along the valley’s rivers. The $40 million approved by Congress for the area’s flood control last month won’t come close to providing the kind of protection that will knock Sacramento out of first place for the most flood-threatened U.S. city. Improving Folsom Dam on the American River is now running upward of $600 million, and Representative John Doolittle, R-Roseville, is agitating for a revival of an even more expensive and environmentally untenable dam project in Auburn.

The logic of flood control and new development may be exemplified in Yuba County, where officials have found that not only is the devil still occupying the lowlands near Olivehurst, but boy, does he have a deal for them.

The deal involves the county building levee improvements with the help of hefty fees paid by developers. There are already 1,600 houses in the pipeline, so to speak, and there’s the potential for 15,000-18,000 new units to come.

“There are 25,000 people who have lived behind those levees for decades” and suffered a flood in 1997 when a levee failed, explained County Administrator Kent McClain. “So, what little population increase that is taking place because of the development is really kind of small in comparison to the people who have lived there all along.”