In a New York Times article (1979) Michiko KaKutani interviewed writer Joan Didion, a fifth-generation Sacramentan who wrote extensively about our Sacramento rivers. KaKutani said, “…Sacramento is a valley town where the summers are hot and plagued by drought, and where the winters are cold and menaced by flood. It is a landscape of extremes.”
Although they bask in the beauty and recreational fun of the rivers, Sacramentans who live near the Sacramento and American Rivers go on alert when the floodplain subject comes up. Even though California is in historic drought time, the river levees must be kept safe with constant repair. Levee wall seepage has happened in some areas for decades and record storms have haunted Sacramento.
California State, SAFCA, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have released draft plans for $1.46 billion in Sacramento levee work. Costs are typically shared by the Federal Government and California State. SAFCA is holding community meetings in April to seek comments from residents about the proposed river levee projects. Deadline for the comment period ends May 4, 2015.
SAFCA is a Joint Powers Agency, formed in October 1989, in the aftermath of the February 1986 flooding. Levee vulnerability was exposed during this time when several levees nearly collapsed under the strain of the storm.
In 2013, speaking before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Richard M. Johnson, Executive Director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA) said, “The Sacramento region is one of the most at-risk areas in the country from the standpoint of potentially devastating flooding.”
Johnson says the goal of the proposed levee improvements is to actively move forward so the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will not start the remaping process.
According to the SAFCA website, “Sacramento Area Flood History,” in the 1840’s, John Sutter who settled Sacramento considered the proximity of two mighty Rivers, the American and the Sacramento, a significant benefit to the fledgling settlement. Yet since, record storms have devastated the Sacramento area.
On December 9, 1861, the American River Levee failed east of 30th street, flooding what is now known as River Park. The water then overran the City’s levee built to protect it. To relieve the rising water levels, the levee at R & 5th Streets was cut to drain the “lake” but houses were swept away in the current of the cut in the levee.
Sacramento streets were raised in response to the floods of 1861-62. Streets east of the Sacramento River to about 12th Street were raised as much as 14 feet. In 1862, newly elected Governor Leland Stanford had to travel in a rowboat to his inauguration at the Capitol.
The First Comprehensive Flood Control Plan was written in response to the 1878 flood. The plan subsequently came to include a system of levees, weirs, and bypass channels to protect existing population centers.
Folsom Dam was authorized in 1944 by the Flood Control Act . It gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers power to build a dam on the lower American River. The Dam was completed in 1956.
Just after the ground was broken on Folsom Dam in 1951, the American River watershed began to experience massive storms. In 1956, a record storm filled Folsom Dam in a week, and the Dam saved Sacramento from flooding.
Another record storm in 1964 caused engineers to re-evaluate storm frequency. They concluded that Folsom Dam was designed to handle a 120-year storm.
The February storm of 1986 dumped 10 inches of rain on Sacramento in 11 days. After two days of releases from Folsom Dam, it was downgraded to a 60-year storm performance.
Pete Ghelfi, Director of Engineering for SAFCA in an interview with KSTV Channel 32 said, “1986 was a benchmark year. It was really the worst storm on record, the largest storm we’ve had in the 150-year history of Sacramento.”
Greenhaven homeowner Bob Aldrich says, “We lived in Campus Commons by the American River during the 1986 flood. I was a reporter for KHYL/KAHI Radio and would go up to the levee and then report from my home office. After moving furniture upstairs, we, with our cats, voluntarily evacuated Campus Commons by the one route out and stayed in the south area with family. We moved to Greenhaven near the Sacramento River in 2003.”
Improvements to the American River levees in 2005, included deep under-seepage cutoff walls and erosion protection. This provided Folsom Dam 100-year protection for much of the American River floodplain, except the Pocket and Meadowview communities. More than 55,000 properties with 100-year flood protection were eligible to receive lower cost for Preferred-Risk flood insurance policies.
Improvements in 2007 to the Sacramento River levees and the South Sacramento Streams levees expanded protection for the Meadowview and Pocket communities. More than 26,000 properties became eligible to receive the lower cost flood insurance.
Greenhaven/Pocket homeowner Muriel Farrell says, “It’s hard to pay flood insurance on my home and on a rental I have, but I know it’s necessary. During flood threats, I’d lie in bed at night and worry about what I would do if I had to leave in an emergency.”
The proposed river levee projects will reduce risk of flooding to approximately 120,000 residential homes. This will allow FEMA to re-certify the levees. In addition to federal standards, the California Legislature approved legislation requiring all California to meet the 200-year level of flood protection.
Upon approval of the draft of the Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), construction would start no earlier than 2016 in the North Sacramento Streams area (Natomas) and no earlier than 2017 along the Sacramento River East Levee (Pocket/Greenhaven). These improvements will also enlarge the Sacramento Bypass that was built a century ago to divert floodwaters away from Sacramento.
Pocket homeowner Kathi Windheim says, “The levee seepage is worrisome, and the 200-year flood protection certification is important.”
Currently officials say the levees are safe, but just do not meet newer safety standards.
For more information on levee projects, a list of community meetings, and to make comments on the DEIR , contact:
SAFCA website http://www.safca.org
SAFCA Project Ombudsman Jay Davis) email@example.com
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Dan.P.Tibbitts@usace.army.mil
Leigh Stephens is a CSUS retired professor of journalism and the author of the book, Covering the Community.