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FEMA flood mapping process is deliberate, uncertain
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All new development in the Sacramento River basin of Colusa County could be halted and flood insurance rates could soar.
That is the extreme and highly unlikely result of a Federal Emergency Management Agency flood map that shows levee protection to be wholly inadequate.
The reality is much more likely that the FEMA flood map will not look that much different than the one that exists now, said Kathy Schaefer, the point person for FEMA at a meeting held at the Colusa Industrial Properties in Colusa on Thursday.
Moreover, Schaefer made it very clear that the flood map will not be ready anytime soon, which means home and property owners will not be required to buy flood insurance — at least right now.
Further accentuating the point, Schaefer said the mapping process has not even been finalized.
However, that does not mean there is no work to be done.
On the contrary, Schaefer put everyone "on notice" that local agencies with responsibility over the levee systems in the county need to take steps to make sure they can be accredited by FEMA when the time comes.
In Colusa County, levees largely mean the Sacramento River, and the primary concerns become the communities of Colusa, Princeton and Grimes. The FEMA flood map will include all of the county, which is the last in the valley to have the mapping completed.
In fact, it has been at least four years since the last county was completed, and it could be a year or more before Colusa County is finished. No timetable is set.
"The FEMA process is, by design, slow and deliberate, and it is going to take awhile to detail new maps for Colusa County," said Schaefer, an engineer in Region 9 and the study manager for Colusa County.
"And I am going to be purposefully vague: I don't have the money (to do the maps)."
That is largely good news for county residents, as well as business and farming interests, which can continue to operate under existing maps.
The problem is no one really has a complete handle on the stability of the levees.
Are they good enough for the 100-year standard that FEMA requires — which also is the standard required in new Central Valley Flood Protection Plan for population centers under 10,000 residents.
What FEMA requires is a matter of degree.
A levee district, for example, can sign a document stating it believes the levees meet the 100-year protection level, or in FEMA's new terminology — a 1 percent level of protection.
Eventually, however, that agency will have to produce documentation that certifies the levees have that level of protection.
Once that happens, then FEMA can accredit the levees for the map.
Like the river itself, that process is filled with twists and turns and undercurrents — all in the form of engineering details and study — that must be navigated by the various agencies.
Throw in that the US Army Corps of Engineers has its own standards that may or may not impact the FEMA process, but can impact the agencies, and some officials left the room uncertain of where they stood.
For those agencies, the test will be to determine the stability of the levees.
It is critical to meet the FEMA standards because that will set insurance rates, and in a very real sense, what kind of financing might be available in the flood plains for future development — everything from housing around the townships to a new agricultural processing plant.
But local officials believe that just evaluating levees under the current conditions is not adequate.
Many believe that flood relief built specifically into the system, such as the Sutter Bypass, is not functioning as it should because of overgrowth of vegetation.
Furthermore, they complain it is federal agencies that are preventing those systems from working properly by protecting or adding habitat, which they claim adds pressure on the levees and complicates the evaluation process.
To complicate that matter, the state's new flood management plan has creation and protection of natural habitat as one is goals.
Moreover, those ag interests that do not fall neatly into community areas are very concerned they are going to be the new relief valve in flood year, and they said there is nothing in the works that guarantees them adequate protection or compensation if that happens.
They point to the devastation of the Missouri Valley when farmland is opened up to flood waters for community protection.
On top of that, farmers argue that the reservoirs — specifically Shasta Lake for the Sacramento River system — is no longer used for its specific design.
"In the dam's inception, it was for flood protection and agriculture," said Colusa area farmer Lincoln Forry. "And that doesn't seem to be the case anymore."