The Fight Over Flood Protection

Stalled levee work in Natomas stalls development

Back Commentary Nov 1, 2013 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson


Whenever I read accounts of terrible flooding — most recently in Colorado and, last year, in New Jersey and New York — I’m reminded of the vulnerability of our own region.

Thanks to its prized location between two major rivers, Sacramento is said to be second in major flood risk only to New Orleans, which we saw devastated by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters in 2005.

Nowhere is our own risk greater than in Natomas, a former flood plain that’s now home to 100,000 residents, hundreds of businesses, our airport and a major federal highway. Levees there no longer meet federal standards raised in the wake of the New Orleans tragedy.

State residents and basin property owners see the risks. They have paid nearly $400 million in bond and tax dollars so the Sacramento Flood Control Agency could upgrade the weakest 18 miles of levees. But now we have waited more than two years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start its share of the project, the remaining 24 miles.

Why the delay? Congress must authorize the work, and legislators are stymied by their own 2011 decision to eliminate the often-egregious use of so-called earmarks. Their intentions were good, but their overly broad definition — any project benefiting a single congressional district — has meant that essential water projects of all kinds have been blocked.

Meanwhile, the stalled levee work prolongs a de facto ban on new construction in Natomas, once the center of a Sacramento housing and retail boom. Without congressional approval to improve flood barriers, local developers can’t start building homes, offices, stores or schools.

Last spring, we saw a glimmer of hope when the Senate authorized a bipartisan Water Resources Development Act, including more than $1 billion for the long-awaited Natomas levee improvement project.

In September, a similar bill passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and moved to the House for approval. There it sits, the victim of the current budget fights. All of Washington is consumed with the country’s fiscal crisis — a crisis caused by the failure of Congress and the President to do the work they were elected to do.

We are inviting trouble as we continue to dither on flood control, here and throughout the country. We all know that the cost in human life and property damage after a flood is far greater than the cost of investing in flood control infrastructure. By failing to finance these projects, we are ignoring serious risks to our communities and adding to the potential liabilities of the federal government.

This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s about public safety. The investment in levees doesn’t just benefit Natomas. It protects critical infrastructure, including an important regional airport and an interstate highway.

New levees would also jumpstart development and the new revenues (and jobs) it brings — rather than forcing us to continue to try to squeeze more dollars out of the same revenue base. They would restore economic vitality to Natomas and, long-term, strengthen the entire region’s economy.

We need to back the efforts of Representative Doris Matsui, who has worked tirelessly to move flood control onto the House’s agenda. Every one of our California representatives should be supporting this effort — and, if they are not, we should be demanding action from them. We do not need more delays and excuses. We need action now, before we face the kind of disaster that has set other regions reeling.


Winnie Comstock-Carlson
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