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Viewpoints: Flood planning needs cooperative approach

Sacramento Bee - By Bill Edgar and Mark Cowin, October 27, 2012

The first rain reminds us that flood season is around the corner. Serious floods are infrequent and unpredictable, but the state of California prepares for the next flood 365 days a year. Scientists and engineers agree that the question is not if the Central Valley will suffer a catastrophic flood, but when.

The California Department of Water Resources and the Central Valley Flood Protection Board recently adopted a plan aimed at revamping the Central Valley flood management system. Financing and implementing the plan will require an extraordinary level of cooperation, not only among various interest groups, but also among the numerous agencies charged with managing rivers and land use of Central Valley floodplains. Funding is limited, and each agency is charged with advancing different priorities including public safety, economic development, recreation, water supply, and fish and wildlife habitat.

To advance all these different priorities, where possible we must design investments to achieve multiple benefits. The state cannot afford single-purpose projects, particularly when they come at the expense of other important objectives. Several multiple-benefit projects planned or under way in the Central Valley serve as models.

The Yolo Bypass is one of the nation's best examples of integrated flood management. For nearly a century, this swath of floodplain has effectively protected Sacramento from flooding while supporting important agricultural, fisheries, waterfowl, recreational and educational opportunities.

On the Knaggs Ranch in the upper Yolo Bypass, a team of scientists from the University of California, Davis, and several agencies are partnering with a rice farmer to learn more about the habitat flooded rice fields provide for juvenile salmon. The first year of the study produced some of the largest juvenile salmon ever measured in the Valley, bolstering the hypothesis that access to a floodplain is important to sustaining salmon populations. The effort will eventually connect flooded rice fields to the Sacramento River.

Just south of Stockton, a diverse group of stakeholders including developers and environmentalists is working to create a new flood bypass along the lower San Joaquin River. Such a bypass would boost flood protection for residents of Manteca, Lathrop and Stockton. It would reduce damage from floods in a growing urban area of the south Delta, enhance river health and provide thousands of acres of critical habitat for sensitive species much the way the Yolo Bypass performs these functions in the north Delta.

In Yuba County, the Three Rivers Levee Authority developed an innovative levee-setback project that improves flood protection and creates more room for habitat along seven miles of the Feather River. The state of California funded 82 percent of this project, confident that its investment would yield public safety, economic and environmental benefits for many decades. The authority constructed a similar setback levee along the Bear River.

These efforts are consistent with international research that shows that giving rivers room to expand during high flows is the best way to protect lives, property, natural habitat and water quality. After nearly a thousand years of levee building, the Dutch, the world's flood management experts, are implementing a new strategy to protect their population. It is called "room for the river" and predicated on the idea that restoring floodplains gives rivers more room to safely accommodate floodwaters.

To make multiple-benefit flood management work in California will require many agencies at all levels of government working together to meet the needs of diverse stakeholders. The Department of Water Resources recently launched a new grant program to enable local agencies to develop regional partnerships and flood management plans. This program will empower local agencies to identify the best way to advance the state's interests.

Focusing on multi-benefit projects is the best way to improve public safety, protect and enhance water quality, and improve habitat throughout the Valley. It's time for agencies to look beyond their narrow mandates and work together with the full diversity of stakeholders to systematically improve flood management in the Central Valley.