Colusa residents boiling over flood plan
The first systemwide flood protection effort by the state is taking on water in Colusa County.
"I think you should start over," Grimes resident Tom Ellis told a state water official at an informational meeting held on the proposed Central Valley Flood Protection Plan at the Sacramento River Fire Protection District station in Colusa on Thursday night.
The meeting was organized by Supervisor Denise Carter in conjunction with a community meeting conducted by Sheriff Scott Marshall.
But it was the flood plan that brought out the crowd, which included Jane Dolan, a former Butte County supervisor who is a member of the flood protection board.
Ellis, recognized as one of the most informed individuals on the plan, was joined by many others with concerns that the county — and rural areas in general — are being sacrificed for the benefit of urban and environmental interests.
"As a result of S.B. 5, rural areas have been put in an untenable position, uncertain of their future flood protection," said Ellis, reading from the text of a letter he sent to the state flood protection board about the proposed plan.
S.B. 5 is the legislation that directs the state Department of Water Resources to develop the flood plan, which by all accounts is the first attempt to look at the issue on a systemwide basis.
Noel Lerner, the regional manager of the upper and middle Sacramento River elements of the plan, presented it as a kind of framework for future projects.
He said the plan, which will be voted on by the Legislature in late June or early July, is not based on specific projects, and despite the multitude of specifics that are listed in various supporting documents, Lerner said that phase will come later.
"When government tells you, 'Trust me,' you better start running or throwing punches," Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said after the meeting.
And that sentiment registers with those in attendance.
They came looking for assurances that their lives and property will be afforded the same projection as anyone else's; and if not to the full extent of those protections, they wanted to know that appropriate recourses would be built into the plan.
The plan calls for 200-year levee standards for urban areas of 10,000 residents or more, or for urbanizing areas that will reach that population in the next 10 years or so.
Smaller riverfront communities, such as Princeton, Colusa and Grimes in Colusa County, are only required to have 100-year protection levels.
Lerner said the ultimate goal is to create a system that clears the flow of flood waters faster and more efficiently, and by doing so, reduces the pressure on the levees and the risk of catastrophic flooding.
That Midvalley region is familiar with what happens when the levees break.
The Feather River levee at Shanghai Bend broke open on Christmas Eve in 1955. The ensuing flood killed 38 people.
In 1986, two people died when the Feather River levee failed near Linda, and three more died when the same stretch of levee broke near Arboga in 1997.
That 1986 flood, and the ensuing multi-million dollar lawsuit the state lost, is viewed as the catalyst for the protection plan as California officials look to shift the liability back to the local jurisdictions.
Hurricane Katrina, and that devastation, also played a part in moving forward with a plan.
Colusa County has its own history of flooding, most notably in 1907 and 1909, but also a bad one in 1940, and a number of troubling but less critical events in the decades that followed. Most have not been river related.
Jack Baber, who was a child in 1940, said the protection plan as it sits now, will create the same conditions that resulted in that flood.
Most in the room believe that the solution is to simply upgrade the existing bypass system back to its original flood-protection intent and levels.
But Lerner made it quite clear that is not likely to happen.
Instead, the plan calls for 40,000 acres of new bypass to be created, 25 percent of which would be earmarked for habitat restoration.
Cherokee Canal, under the plan, could be expanded to act as a bypass between the Feather River and the Sacramento River system, affording the Yuba City-Marysville area more relief, but possibly bringing more water than the current Sacramento River system could handle.
Lerner assured people that before that would happen, mitgations would be in place to make sure the water would not have a negative impact.
That mitigation, some fear, is the plan for setback levees, which would also take another 26,000 acres of largely farmland out of production. About 6,000 of those acres would be in Colusa County.
Nielsen said the top priority should be putting the bypasses back to their historical purpose and to focus on building a series of small reservoirs, such as the Sites Reservoir, which has been discussed for nearly three decades.
Lerner said the concept of the plan is to have multiple-benefits from the various projects, meaning whatever work is done, it would benefit urban interests as well as others, and yes, the environment is part of that mix.
Carter said whatever the plan ultimately turns out to be, it will be costly, running in the tens of millions of dollars — and that comes with local cost sharing.
She urged everyone to send their comments to the flood board.