Smart flood protection can’t wait for Delta fix

There’s a whole lot of talk going on these days about fixing the Delta. And there is plenty to fix: Water quality in decline. Fish on the verge of extinction. Growth pressures threatening our agricultural economy. Deteriorating levees. Court orders to stop pumping from the Delta. Climate change increasing flood risk. No easy answers.

The governor has appointed 48 experts to sort out the mess and make recommendations. The Legislature also is working on it. Important work. Complicated. But even the most optimistic among us don’t see it getting resolved soon.

So what happens in the meantime as the next flood season approaches? Will it be business as usual? Will communities continue to spring up in the middle of deep flood zones? Will super levees be built to protect one community by pushing floodwaters on to another? Will state agencies and local governments continue to disregard scientific reality and approve projects that are certain to result in disaster in areas that were under 10-15 feet of water as recently as 1986 and 1997?

I hope not. The flood issue is one part of the Delta fix we can implement now. And we must. Unless we here in the Delta do a better job planning our own future, others will dictate it to us. As each year passes and hundreds of thousands of homes are approved in high-risk floodplains, not only are those new homeowners put at risk, but also options for where the water will go are reduced and the risk to other communities will increase. And when the floods occur, all California taxpayers will pay the bill for damages to life and property from bad local planning decisions.

Take, for example, the use of river bypasses as an effective method of redirecting floodwaters away from urbanized areas. The Yolo Bypass is a model for success. During times of flooding, it protects the city of Sacramento by taking the overflow of the Sacramento River and spreading it over thousands of acres of farmland and habitat before it returns to the main river near Rio Vista.

Many planners have identified a need for a similar bypass for the lower San Joaquin River. One promising site was recently compromised when the city of Lathrop and the state Board of Reclamation approved the River Islands project, a plan to build super levees and place 11,000 homes on farmland smack-dab in the middle of a flood corridor on the banks of the San Joaquin River. A safety valve to protect existing communities including Stockton may be lost.

It’s time to for a coordinated state and local approach to flood protection. Floodwaters do not respect jurisdictional boundaries. The state has a key role to play in establishing a state plan of flood protection in our region. This plan must assess the capacity of our current system, identify its weaknesses and chart a plan for improvement. It also must set adequate standards of protection for homes and identify areas that are inappropriate for future development.

Local governments also need to adopt their own plans of flood protection, allowing communities to grow without putting more people at risk or redirecting floodwaters to other communities. When it comes to flood protection, we are all in this together.
In the coming weeks the Legislature will consider a package of measures to define state and local flood-protection responsibilities, including the adoption of state and local plans of flood protection. These measures will also establish reliable standards of flood protection, and allocate state bond funds toward this effort. When California voters approved over $4 billion for better flood protection, they expected these dollars to be spent wisely. Smart planning is essential to making sure taxpayer dollars serve their purpose.

There are some who may be satisfied with the status quo. They don’t want higher standards or stricter planning requirements. They will say it will make housing “less affordable.” I don’t buy it, and neither does the public. Housing under 20 feet of water is not affordable–not affordable to homeowners who will lose their major life’s investment, nor affordable to the taxpayers who end up paying the entire bill when levees break.

When it comes to flood protection, we will all sink–or stay dry–together.

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