Personnel Profile: Mike Mierzwa

Mike Mierzwa is the supervising engineer for the Department of Water Resources.

Tell me about your job.
I’m the lead for the communications and outreach for the FloodSAFE Initiative. The FloodSAFE initiative really has its legacy back to the adoption of a series of two public general obligation bonds from 2006 for public safety and six different pieces of legislation back in 2007 that scoped out how the state actually reduces flood risk.

The major piece of legislation in that 2007 package was Senate Bill 5, which called for the adoption of a Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. We’re supposed to go through an outline, identify the risks for the flood system, identify what the status of the flood system is, what assets we have to protect the system. This is what we call our flood control system descriptive document. The plan itself, which is to be released by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board in January, 2012, is to actually outline a series of management plans and recommendations so we can actually reduce this flood risk.

There’s a serious of projects we’re looking at. We’ve gone through and had a series of stakeholder engagement activities. Based on that, we’ve gotten things such as levee improvements, something we could do now. The other end of the spectrum of management actions is coming in and building storage reservoirs or re-operating existing reservoirs. There are longer-range planned activities that really reduce the flood peaks, taking the risks out of the system itself.

Part of the FloodSAFE Program is an eventuation program. We’ve been evaluating both urban and non-urban levees throughout the Central Valley and finding out how reliable those levees are. We’re actually going through and drilling, taking core samples of the levees themselves, looking to see is the soil structure of the material sound? Will it meet the existing design standards? Depending on the reliability of that system, we can go through and evaluate the levee as in need of urgent repair, or it can just be put as a levee that needs to be addressed by one of our capital improvement projects.

This FloodSAFE Initiative has a series of programs where the Department works with local flood control programs, and we’re willing to provide a cost-share. The state provides money. The federal government has its own money where they can provide additional cost-share programs to build back a levee or improve it beyond the existing design standards. We need to come up and define an urban level of protection. That’s that 200-year level of protection that people have been talking about.  

So farmland can flood, houses can’t?
It’s more devastating if an urban area floods. The intent is, you want to protect the entire system, but you put a higher level of protection on the area that has a higher risk. When the flooding comes through, it can be the damages there at the event. There’s also the loss of opportunities. The best example that people can remember is that when New Orleans flooded, people went without jobs for months to years. That disruption of the economy doesn’t just affect the people who are affected by the flood, but the people who depend on that center of commerce.

Can you comment on whether flood insurance rates might change?

We’re not really connected to that. That’s a federal issue with FEMA.

How much do you know about the risk in the Sacramento area?
The Sacramento area has been ahead of the curve going through SAFCA. That’s the Sacramento Area Flood Control Association. Agencies that are responsible for providing flood protection have combined together. The organization was able to come up with a fee assessment to improve its revenue stream, that it can use to meet that local cost share for federal and state projects.

How worried should people in Sacramento be about the levees?

Everybody should be worried about the levees. One of the programs that we also had initiated from the 2007 flood legislation was the first of a series of flood notification letters. About 300,000 people in the state, property owners, received a letter from the state. The idea is letting people know that there is a risk there. Regardless of what we can do to make things safer, there is always a residual risk.

In Sacramento, just at the nature of where we are, at the confluence of multiple massive rivers—the Sacramento River, the American River, the Feather River, the Yuba River is a tributary to the Feather, one of the state’s largest rivers—this is a big floodplain. People are going to constantly be at risk. The key is to focus and make sure the quality of the flood protection is going to provide us an acceptable level of risk.

I’m currently house-hunting in Sacramento. Is there an area where I should definitely not buy?

No. I think you’re fine. Don’t rely on your realtor of whoever is selling you the house for the information. Go through the city and county. If it makes you feel any better, there are a lot of folks involved in flood management who do live in low-lying areas like the Pocket or Natomas.

I want to live closer to downtown.
You’ll be fine.  

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