Flood control effort rises as federal deadlines loom

If all goes smoothly, Sacramento’s basic flood problems should be fixed by 1996, ending requirements for flood insurance and allowing development in Natomas.

Of course, nothing has gone smoothly in Sacramento’s nine-year effort to solve its flood problems.

If the city’s flood control plan is in place by 1996, lenders might no longer have to require flood insurance on structures.

But in the meantime, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected by early next year to finally adopt new flood plain maps — stalled by political pressure since 1989 — showing that most of Sacramento County is flood-prone.

Between the time those maps are adopted and the time the city’s flood protection is in place, there could be a hike in flood insurance rates, nearly doubling them. And bills currently before Congress would mandate that all mortgage lenders — not just those with federally insured deposits — require flood insurance on structures.

Progress is now described as rapid on flood-control construction in Natomas and on the city’s flood wall, which runs downstream from Old Sacramento to Broadway. Also important are negotiations between local officials and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to arrange more flood storage for Folsom Lake.

These measures should give the area basic protection from a major flood likely to occur once every 100 years, said Tim Washburn, counsel for the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency.

Further down the line and more nebulous at this point is whether a dam or other flood-control measures will be undertaken on the upper American River to increase local flood protection well beyond the level required for a “100-year” flood — a flood of such magnitude that it can be expected only once a century.

Political questions loom. For instance, a federal panel of experts convened by Congress after last year’s Midwestern floods recommended two weeks ago that the government no longer promote levee and dam construction in flood-prone areas. The panel’s degree of influence, however, is unclear.

In Natomas, developers have been closely watching flood-control construction. Development has been held up since the 1986 floods showed an unexpected weakness of the local levee system. That year’s floods, rated as only about 70 percent as high as a 100-year flood, nearly topped levees.

Last year, the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency started work on some $45 million worth of improvements needed to Natomas’ inner levee system. The work should be done by 1996, Washburn said.

A possible glitch: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently notified SAFCA that a 100-year flood would raise water levels higher than expected on the Sacramento River in Natomas. That means four miles of river levee might have to be raised six inches, adding another $5 million to $10 million to the project. SAFCA isn’t sure where the money would come from, said Paul Devereux, the agency’s engineer.

SAFCA will try to get FEMA not to require the higher levees, Washburn said.

The higher level also means that SAFCA must buy 1,000 acres in the northern part of the basin near Pleasant Grove Creek canal and reshape the adjacent levee system for better flood control. That could take more time and money.

The Natomas flood-control project can’t be completed unless a wildlife conservation program is developed for the Natomas basin. It’s being worked out among government officials and developers, Washburn said.

Some environmentalists will keep arguing that it is dangerous to allow more construction in an area that suffers deep floods, regardless of levee improvements, said Ron Stork of Friends of the River.

Federal rules allow some development to proceed when the work is half-done, probably late next year. Local officials, however, may not favor residential development until the work is all done, said Bob Thomas, a Sacramento deputy city manager.

The rest of the city, south of the American River, won’t be out of the plain until the reoperation of Folsom Dam is set up, Devereux said. SAFCA is negotiating with the Bureau of Reclamation to increase the amount of reservoir space kept empty in the rainy season. Currently, 40 percent of the lake is kept empty. The reoperation would increase flood storage to 67 percent. SAFCA expects to strike a deal with the bureau this summer, Washburn said.

Also south of the American River, the city’s flood wall on the Sacramento River is in poor shape. But the funding is available for the $2.5 million project and construction should be completed by 1996, Washburn said.

Before the 1986 floods, most of Sacramento was believed to be outside the 100-year-flood plain. The ’86 floods prompted FEMA to remap, which was done in 1989. But local officials persuaded FEMA to hold off adopting those maps until now. As it stands, FEMA is expecting to designate the area by early next year as being in neither a flood-clear nor a flood-prone area, but in an interim zone between the two, said Ray Leneburg, a FEMA spokesman.

FEMA’s anticipated new flood-plain maps could affect flood-insurance rates. Once the new flood-plain maps are adopted and until flood control measures are complete, close to 65,000 homes and building owners would have to absorb insurance rate hikes if they have been slow in buying coverage. The average flood insurance policy for a $100,000 home would then increase 86 percent to $412 a year from $222, reported the National Flood Insurance Program, a division of FEMA. If building owners buy their coverage before the new maps are adopted, they can lock in the lower rate.

As of March 31, 54,002 homes and buildings in both the incorporated and unincorporated areas of Sacramento County were protected by flood insurance, up from 51,693 at the same time last year.

When the local maps were redrawn in 1989, 90 percent of the property in Sacramento County was put in flood-prone areas, up from 10 percent under the old maps. The old maps put 115,000 Sacramento County buildings in the 100-year flood plain; the new maps will include 125,000 more structures.

Federally insured lenders must require homeowners to have flood insurance. But an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of mortgage lenders don’t comply, said Mike Shore, a mitigation specialist with FEMA.

Congressional legislation is being melded this year, however, that extends the flood insurance mandate to mortgage lenders that are not federally regulated, while also providing fines for those lenders not complying.

Not everyone believes flood insurance rates will come down even if Sacramento solves its flood problems by 1996.

“I do not believe that this will be just a two-year solution,” said Kirby Wells, owner of R.K. Wells Insurance Agency, which sells flood insurance. “For homes in (flood-prone areas) it will be an ongoing program.”

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