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California makes critical repairs in century-old levee system

The state spent $80 million this summer repairing 30 of the state’s 40 most critically impaired levees, but the century-old levee system is in need of many more upgrades.
Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Published on October 24, 2017 1:53PM

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation workers replace a pump near a levee next to the Sacramento Weir Oct. 23 in preparation for flood season. State officials held a news conference on the levee to highlight ongoing flood preparedness efforts.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation workers replace a pump near a levee next to the Sacramento Weir Oct. 23 in preparation for flood season. State officials held a news conference on the levee to highlight ongoing flood preparedness efforts.

Bill Edgar, president of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, talks to a reporter during a presentation on flood control and preparedness Oct. 23 on a levee overlooking the Sacramento Weir. The state is in the midst of a long-term project to fix its aging levees.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press

Bill Edgar, president of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, talks to a reporter during a presentation on flood control and preparedness Oct. 23 on a levee overlooking the Sacramento Weir. The state is in the midst of a long-term project to fix its aging levees.


SACRAMENTO — Water agencies in California spent $80 million this summer to repair 30 of the most critically impaired levees after last winter’s rains, but there were 10 others that they couldn’t get to, officials said.

Many of them were in the San Joaquin Valley, where reservoir releases to accommodate late-season snowmelt kept rivers swelling well into June. Officials had to wait for the water to recede to assess impact on the levees, said Jon Ericson, acting chief of the Department of Water Resources’ Division of Flood Management.

“There are still sites that we haven’t repaired, and we’re going to have contingency plans for those,” Ericson said during a news conference Oct. 23 on a levee overlooking the Sacramento Weir, which is undergoing repairs.

The state has prepared designs for those 10 future sites and worked with local water districts and others to prepare contingency plans for 100 other compromised levee sites in preparation for this year’s rainy season.

A sense of urgency prevailed this summer after high river levels during a historically wet winter exposed weak spots in roughly 1,600 miles of levees in the Central Valley. Among the most troubled areas is the Feather River below the Oroville Dam, whose spillways nearly failed in February.

Crews spent more than $40 million in mostly state funds to shore up those levees, including a $12 million project to refurbish a one-mile stretch of levee protecting agricultural land near Yuba City that needed emergency repairs last winter.

Officials gathered on Oct. 23 to urge flood preparedness among residents and to highlight the monstrous task ahead in refurbishing a century-old levee system that was ostensibly built for agriculture but now protects many urban areas as well.

“The Central Valley is one of the highest flood risk areas in the nation,” said Bill Edgar, president of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board. “The levees have been successful in protecting agriculture, but over time people began building homes ... and high-value permanent crops (in the floodplain).”

California has spent more than $4 billion on repairs since 2007 under a flood control plan passed by the Legislature in 2007, Edgar said. The effort in the Central Valley could cost as much as $21 billion over a 30-year period, he said.

Funding has come from various sources, including money from Proposition 1E, a $900 million flood protection bond passed in 2006. And the Legislature approved a bill by state Senate Leader Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, to place a $3.5 billion bond measure for flood protection, water supply reliability and new parks and open space before voters in June 2018.

But officials said more contributions from local water agencies and more federal funding will be needed to pick up the slack. For instance, the state spends about $30 million a year on basic levee maintenance when engineers say it should be spending about $130 million, Edgar said.

“That’s the kind of increase we’re looking at,” he said, adding that such a boost would require commitments from local assessment districts, the state’s general fund and state bond funds as well as federal sources.

“The thing to understand is that this is a partnership,” Edgar said. “Everyone is going to have to pay. They’re all paying now, but they’re going to have to pay a little more.”

State efforts barely scratch the surface in terms of needs for the levee system as a whole, said Greg Farley, the Division of Flood Management’s communications branch chief.

California has about 14,000 miles of levees, including those that protect urban areas, those that protect coastal areas from flooding because of storm surges and others, Farley said.

Of the 5,000 miles of levees in the Central Valley, the state has a financial interest in about 1,600 miles of them, he said. Most of the rest are owned by local districts or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said.

But among its levees, the state will make a push over the next five years to repair those in agricultural areas, he said. The state had a program this summer in rural areas to replace corroded pipes in levees and take erosion-control measures, Edgar said.

“Many areas remain vulnerable,” said Dan Tibbetts, the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency’s principal engineer. For instance, some levees along the Sacramento River that sustained damage last winter will have to make it through another flood season, Tibbetts said.



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