Central Valley Floods Next in the News?
By Irv Schiffman
The epic flooding in the Mississippi Valley should give pause to the residents of California’s Central Valley because many of the conditions that led to the flood disasters along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers are present in California as well.
Similar to conditions in the Mississippi Valley, we have enjoyed a near-record wet season with heavy snows and rains. A number of California rivers are already swollen and as the weather warms up we can expect a serious snow melt that will increase their volume and flow even more.
Historically in both the California Central Valley and along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, lowlands were desirably productive areas sought for agricultural purposes. Levees were built close to the river in order for the landowners to gain as much land as possible for farming purposes. Later, cities and towns expanded into traditional farming areas, adding impervious surfaces to wetland areas and further closing off floodplains that could act as natural safety valves when rivers overflow.
In both regions of the country, the benefits of floodplains have generally been underappreciated in both local and regional planning. There has been a failure to put a value on the natural services of floodplains that could be incorporated into policy-making: the safety, ecological and economic benefits of floodplains have been downplayed in favor of commercial and agricultural development.
Perhaps change is on the way. The floods in the Mississippi Valley along with the earlier disaster in New Orleans have led to a new respect for the value of floodplains and a renewed interest in non-structural solutions to flood control on the part of federal, state and local officials.
River Partners, of course, supports a policy of non-structural solutions to flood control, particularly those that enhance the natural environment. We have been engaged in a number of levee setback projects that result in improved floodwater conveyance in the expanded floodway, restored fish, wildlife and riparian habitat in the project area, and a reduction in long term operation and maintenance costs.
California has not been burdened with major flooding in the past few years and it appears that when state flooding isn’t on the front page, neither is flood policy. But time is not on our side, and there is a definite need for the state to formulate a plan to preserve and restore the numerous and beneficial functions of California floodplains.