Flood plan raises concerns about loss of farmland

Issue Date: August 7, 2013
By Kate Campbell

In the past 75 years, the Danna family, which farms in Yuba and Sutter counties, has seen its share of floods and flood protection plans. The family has lost property to high water and land through eminent domain to improve flood management in the Sacramento Valley.

Farmer Steve Danna said he recognizes the need for flood control and supports the regional flood planning efforts now underway. But, like a lot of landowners who stand to lose their property through government taking, he has serious concerns.

"The 1997 flood hit us very hard," Danna said. "We had 20 feet of water in our dehydrator. We know the risks of floods and the damage they can do. But selling land that you don't want to sell is never easy."

Since 2005, Danna said he has lost more than 400 acres of farmland along the Sacramento and Feather rivers through eminent domain. His neighbors have lost at least another 1,500 acres.

The Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, adopted last year by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, could ultimately affect about 40,000 acres of farmland, primarily in the Sacramento Valley. The land would be used to create new "flood space," or system flow capacity, and wildlife habitat. The increased capacity would come from new setback levees and bypass expansions.

The plan calls for taking about 10,000 acres for flood space that would become permanent habitat. The remaining 30,000 acres would remain farmable, subject to flood easements and seasonal flooding, similar to farming in existing bypasses today.

The state Department of Water Resources developed the plan as required under the Central Valley Flood Protection Act of 2008, adopted in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans.

More than 1 million Californians live and work in Central Valley floodplains, where experts say the flood risks are among the highest in the nation.

Flood protection infrastructure evaluated in the process of developing the plan includes about 1,600 miles of levees and 1,000 miles of channels, much of them built before the 1940s. About 300 miles of levees help protect urban areas, which the plan calls for upgrading to protect against a 200-year flood, and about 1,230 miles that help protect rural areas would be strengthened to withstand a 100-year flood.

Also included in the system are about 420 miles of privately owned levees that experts say are instrumental to the system's effective functioning, but are not part of the state's infrastructure responsibility.

The next phase in the flood management effort is regional planning, which is now underway in the Sacramento Valley. DWR is providing funding and help with plans to keep them consistent with the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan.

Landowners in Sutter and Butte counties have already taken action to improve flood protection infrastructure, rice farmer Jon Munger said.

"The levee projects in our area will tie together with the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan," Munger said. "But at this point, it's a bit convoluted. The state has its plan, but they're also working with county and local agencies that are doing their own planning, and these plans need to be linked."

Munger, who is acting president of the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau, said the issues surrounding this planning effort from Farm Bureau's standpoint include being able to define project areas, protect farmland and preserve agriculture.

He said farmers want to protect against big environmental takings of their land for habitat purposes or for overly large setback areas that don't provide flood management benefits.

"Basically, farmers don't want to chop up their land and sell," Munger said. "If they're forced to, they want to be sure the land is actually needed and will achieve improved flood protection levels."

Farm Bureau is working to get ahead of the game so there aren't unnecessary takings of land, Munger said. In conjunction with the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency, the county Farm Bureau has commissioned an independent economic study of the impacts of expanding the Sutter Bypass.

Many farmers own land within the bypass area, Munger said, so they know "there's a big economic impact of expanding the bypass area. It limits how the land can be used and which crops can be grown and it has an impact on land values.

"Quite frankly, if the state and local agencies would just clean up the existing bypasses, it would be so much better for flood protection," he said. "Those are the kinds of things Farm Bureau wants to see addressed."

Megan Foster, Yuba-Sutter County Farm Bureau executive director, said a number of flood management projects are now under construction, moving ahead while the large planning effort begins.

"These projects and many others in the future are going to affect a lot of folks," Foster said. "Our experiences are a foreshadowing of what will be going on in the future throughout the Sacramento Valley. This is an opportunity for growers to get involved and make their voices heard."

Because of the sweeping nature of the draft regional flood management plan, Foster said Farm Bureau encourages Central Valley farmers and ranchers to weigh in with DWR during this phase.

Because of the implications for agriculture of the overall and regional plans, the California Farm Bureau Federation maintains a special "Flood Protection" section on its website at www.cfbf.com/issues/water/flood/. The webpage includes maps of proposed bypass expansions and levee setbacks, updates on plan development, key documents, comment letters and the opportunity to subscribe to updates on the topic.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.