Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sacramento levees' failure of federal standards declared - Sacramento Bee

Levees protecting most of the city of Sacramento and 15 other areas of the Central Valley were declared today to have failed federal maintenance criteria. As a result, they are no longer eligible for federal rebuilding funds in the event of a levee breach.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made the declaration today. It did so after concluding that a new state plan to improve Central Valley levees does not provide enough detail to ensure maintenance problems -- such as erosion and intrusion by structures -- will be fixed.

The affected levee systems include 40 miles of levees wrapping most of the city of Sacramento on the American and Sacramento rivers. This system of levees, known on flood-control maps as "Maintenance Area 9," includes the south bank of the American River from about Bradshaw Road downstream to the confluence with the Sacramento River, then downstream from there nearly to Courtland.

The problems in this system of levees, according to the Army Corps, include many encroachment problems. The poster-child for this problem is Sacramento's Pocket neighborhood, where many homes and swimming pools are built against the base of the levee, leaving no room for a 15-foot-wide maintenance corridor required by the Corps.

This is a longstanding problem, and it would be difficult and expensive to fix.

"We understand this costs money, and money is a fiscal challenge for local governments," said Col. William Leady, commander of the Sacramento district of the Army Corps. " Levee safety standards need to be as uncompromising as floodwaters are. That's the rationale behind why we're kinda being hardlined."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses Army Corps data to decide whether a community should be stripped of its 100-year flood certification. If that were to happen as a result of Thursday's announcement, thousands of Sacramento homeowners could be required to buy flood insurance at a cost of $1,200 or more every year.

But FEMA district engineer Kathleen Schaefer said her agency does not plan to begin a remapping effort in Sacramento until 2014, as part of a broader regional mapping program. This potentially gives the city time to address the problems identified by the Corps.

One way Sacramento could do that is by "self-certifying" its levees, said Tim Washburn, planning director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency. Rather than relying on the Army Corps to certify its levees, as it has in the past, the city would hire its own engineer to decide if the levees meet FEMA criteria, which are different from those set by the Army Corps.

The SAFCA board of directors set this process in motion in July, Washburn said, and it could be complete a year from now.

"I'm not expecting that levee accreditation would say you need a wholesale change in the relationship between the residential properties and the levees that has existed over these many years," Washburn said.

The Army Corps announcement Thursday is not the result of new levee inspections. The Corps is relying on inspections done between 2009 and 2011. Instead, it results from expiration of a treaty of sorts with the state.

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