YUBA CITY, Calif. — Crews are racing this summer to complete several high-priority levee repairs while California lawmakers and others scramble to find funding for many more that are needed.
Local, state and federal dignitaries gathered Aug. 3 to highlight a $28.5 million effort to put in 2.9 miles of slurry wall to shore up a levee along the Feather River. The project aims to protect about 75,000 residents from flooding.
A few miles downriver, work is proceeding on a $12 million project to refurbish a one-mile stretch of levee protecting agricultural land that needed emergency repairs last winter, said Mike Inamine, executive director of the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency.
“In February, there was a flood fight mounted because there was so much seepage that we had to hire a contractor to place an emergency berm that covered the toe of the levee,” Inamine said.
These projects are only “a start,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who was unsuccessful in getting $100 million more for levee repair included in the state budget this summer.
“There are many parts of the levee system along the Feather and Sacramento rivers that are going to need help before the rains hit,” he said.
As it was, the two levee projects in the Yuba City area were mostly funded by the state, including money from Proposition 1E, a $4.9 billion flood protection bond passed in 2006. The projects are part of a long-term flood control program in the Central Valley that could cost up to $20 billion over the next 20 to 30 years, said Clyde MacDonald, a member of the state’s Central Valley Flood Protection Board.
A sense of urgency prevails this summer after high river levels during a historically wet winter exposed weak spots in nearly 1,600 miles of levees in rural parts of the Central Valley.
Among the most troubled areas is the Feather River below the Oroville Dam, whose spillways nearly failed in February. In the corridor between Oroville and Yuba City, orchards on the Feather River’s floodplain were inundated several times this year, as were some orchards beyond the levees that accumulated water because of seepage.
Numerous instances of erosion occurred along the Feather River amid wild fluctuations of water levels as officials closed and reopened the Oroville Dam’s spillway. Some growers lost trees because of the erosion.
In Yuba City, a segment of levee next to the urban center showed signs of seepage and erosion, prompting 250 people to gather at a rally last month to demand action. One section of the levee has already failed and been repaired several times, the last of which was by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2000.
Efforts to find more money for repairs are ongoing. Nielsen said he’s been in conference calls with local districts to learn their most critical levee needs and is working with Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to identify funding. He said budget trailer legislation is possible.
“I think they’re fully aware of the needs,” Nielsen said. “This is the State Water Project. Fixing the (Oroville) spillway is critical, but ... if you don’t have a conveyance system that works, then you don’t need a dam.”
The state flood board is working through the Army Corps of Engineers to get $5 million for levee repairs south of Yuba City, but that likely won’t come this year, Inamine said.
“We’re targeting to try to get that into our 2018 work plan,” he said. “The federal process is quite a bit slower than what we can do locally. It’s typically two or three years down the road.”
Some who were affected by the winter’s wrath are unwilling to wait for their turn in the pipeline. The Butte County-based JEM Farms and Chandon Ranch filed a $15 million claim with the state, saying water rushing down the Feather River wiped out part of a walnut orchard, the Sacramento Bee reported.