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A troubled flood plan
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of stories on the proposed Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, one farmer's views that reflect a general ag consensus in the region. The urban and environmental aspects of the plan will be explored in future stories, as well as an overview of the plan heading into the final months prior to a formal vote by the state Legislature.
The sign read, "Thanks for saving our little town."
It was posted on the side of Highway 20, along with a smattering of others east of the Meridian bridge, just days after waters finally receded away from a makeshift berm that circled around the eastern edge of the town 15 years ago.
A week or so earlier, the western levee of the Sutter Bypass had failed, and water rushed out — covering the highway, inundating thousands of acres of farmland and threatening Meridian three miles away.
Tom Ellis, a Grimes resident, is one of many who believe a contributing factor to that break was the lack of maintenance in the bypass, allowing too many trees, brush and other growth to sprout up in what was built for, and always intended to be, a flood-control channel.
More troubling for some is the fact the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service developed the Sutter Refuge in the middle of the bypass, which they believe also kept the water backed up and added pressure on the levee that ultimately broke.
It is a memory that haunts Ellis each time he reads the proposed Central Valley Flood Protection Plan.
"It is the most volatile river system in the U.S.," said Ellis, who farms alfalfa, some rice and wheat, and leases some ground to grow tomatoes.
Unlike other major river systems, such as the Mississippi, Ellis said there just is not enough flat land to take the rush of flood waters from the Sacramento River system.
A history of valley floods
Two floods — one in 1907, the other in 1909, and both at Moon Bend — convinced area residents and regional officials something had to be done about controlling the heavy winter waters of the Sacramento River.
Historically, the waters spilled out over the valley floor, creating a vast wetland.
The native populations, largely hunters and gatherers, moved with the seasons, heading to the higher ground when the waters came.
That ended with the Gold Rush, and the thousands and thousands of people who followed that dream of riches to California.
"A lot of those people were farmers before the Gold Rush, so when their luck ran out, they went back to what they knew, agriculture," Ellis said.
Those farmers and ranchers reclaimed the valley floor and turned it into one of the richest farming areas in the state, and ultimately the nation.
It was not until the later floods in the early 1900s, and particularly in 1909, that and earlier plan for a system of bypasses proposed by Colusa's founder, Will S. Green, was given much attention.
The basic problem, Ellis notes, is that the Sacramento River channel, from the Sutter Buttes south to Rio Vista, could only handle 20 or 25 percent of the extra flood waters.
It was determined, however, that if bypasses — one on the east side and one on the west — could be developed, then the remaining 75 to 80 percent could be moved south safely.
And that is what happened, with work starting around 1915. The Sutter Bypass, which had already been developed to some degree, and the Butte Slough system, were widened and dredged.
The project also included straightening a 12-mile stretch of the river near Rio Vista.
Easement documents clearly show that maintaining the bypass areas for flood protection was the first and most important objective.
Out of sight, out of mind
Certainly there have been other floods since 1909, but none even close to the magnitude of that incident in which hundreds of thousands of acres were under water.
Some whisper, "Maybe that's the problem."
The bypass system has not been maintained as much as it should have over the years, and the natural growth that has occurred has had a negative impact on the flow of floodwaters.
Ellis said a quick look at Butte Slough is evidence enough.
"It is getting pretty bad," said Ellis, who is not talking about the trees along the side of the slough, but the growth through the middle of it.
The same issue exists with the larger Sutter Bypass, and specifically the refuge
"We feel that is a big problem," Ellis said.
Ellis said the wildlife agency has made some effort to clear out undergrowth and other problems in the refuge area, but he questions whether that is enough.
"We feel they are not taking are of it (the bypass) properly," Ellis said
The plan misses mark
Ellis is concerned that restoring the bypass system to its intended objective, and then maintaining that system, is not a big enough priority in the flood protection plan.
In fact, he is not convinced it is a priority at all, in large part because of the ecological interests tied to those systems now.
"About 90 percent (of the plan) is dedicated to eco-system analysis," Ellis said.
Like most who have agricultural interests and have been involved in the plan workshops, Ellis believes the environmental concerns are getting more priority than the ag interests.
Justin Fredrickson, an environmental policy analyst with the California Farm Bureau Federation, recently said that the plan does not even clearly state anywhere that life and property are the first priorities.
If anything, he told a gathering at the Colusa Farm Bureau last month, the ecological interests are on at least equal footing, if not a step up.
"It seems to me the new Flood Plan is more of an ecosystem restoration plan than a flood plan, which brings to the forefront the need for 'landowner assurances' so we in production agriculture have some resources when we find ourselves neighboring a restoration project," Ellis wrote to the state officials.
What convinces Ellis that is correct are the alternatives being proposed for flood protection in the area.
Rather than focus restoring a bypass system that has worked over the decades, the plan proposes such things as setback levees, which would increase flood protection, but also take large swaths of land away from the landowners.
Ellis said in order for the area around his shop, just south of the Colusa-Yolo counties line, to get equal protection from a setback levee, it would have to be 35 feet high, with a base of 150 feet.
And the state would not be looking to buy the land. Instead, it would be some kind of easement, and Ellis is not sure what kind of authority would come with that deal — and who would be responsible if something goes wrong.
"I don't know what they have planned, but I say if you want my land, buy it," Ellis said.
On top of that, funding to build the levees is not likely to be available, which could put anyone in the flood plan area in a position of not being able to even build a farming shop or a home because financing would not be available from banks.
Worst still, he said, is an element in the plan to widen the Cherokee Canal for what appears to be the sole purpose of moving water from the Feather River systems over to the Sacramento River system.
That would certainly protect Marysville and Yuba City, but it would only add water to an already overloaded system on the west side.
And Ellis, who attended every single workshop on the Upper Sacramento, said it was never discussed. He said a friend of his attended every workshop on the Lower Sacramento, and it was not discussed in those meetings either.
"As a casual reader, you would see that in the flood plan, so you would think it has been discussed. It has not," Ellis said.
What's at stake
When Ellis steps outside his shop just south of the Colusa-Yolo counties line, he can see the nearby River Garden Farm Company storage facility, which holds more than 1 million hundred-weight sacks of rice each year.
Then there is the Erdman warehouse to the north, and Ellis can point to the location of three or four more warehouses in close proximity to the north and west.
They represent millions of sacks of rice, and the foundational economy of the region.
To the east, the Sacramento River runs behind the levee that marks the horizon.
The Colusa and Yolo basins are home to farming and ranching operations, and Ellis does not think the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan addresses what is at stake — now or in the future.
"I don't want to leave this to my children," Ellis said.
Ellis wants things to slow down to give the agencies involved in a hydro-analysis of parts of the existing bypass system a chance to finish the study.
Preliminary results have already indicated the habitat growth is a concern for the proper function of the bypass.
Then he hopes, though he does not think it is likely, that officials will look back in history and see a bypass system that has worked when allowed to work.
"You are going to have to stop putting these habitats in the flood bypass," Ellis said. "And you are going to have to maintain them."