Flood plan could require more land as habitat

Issue Date: February 4, 2015
By Christine Souza

Editor's note: The online version of this story was updated on Feb. 25, 2015, to provide revised habitat figures in the 5th and 9th paragraphs.

A long-term plan intended to improve flood protection in the Central Valley would affect tens of thousands of additional acres, including farmland that could be converted to permanent wildlife habitat, according to figures released in a new draft conservation strategy document from the California Department of Water Resources.

The draft conservation strategy is a planning document meant to provide direction for a requirement to create habitat as DWR works to develop the 2017 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. The plan, required under the Central Valley Flood Protection Act of 2005, was adopted in 2013. The conservation strategy, released on Jan. 23, contains information on types of habitats and amounts of acres required under environmental objectives for the flood-protection plan.

After reviewing the draft conservation strategy, California Farm Bureau Federation Environmental Policy Analyst Justin Fredrickson described acreage listed in the conservation strategy as "much, much higher than was previously stated."

Originally, the flood protection plan suggested the process would affect about 40,000 acres of farmland, mostly in the Sacramento Valley, with 10,000 acres to be used to create permanent new "flood space" or system flow capacity and wildlife habitat.

After reviewing the conservation strategy, Fredrickson found the document now calls for creation of 20,000 acres of permanent habitat in the Sacramento River region, plus 9,000 acres of additional, permanent habitat in the San Joaquin River region.

"These are amounts of new habitat the DWR document indicates are needed in connection with the flood infrastructure projects in the larger plan, to recover a variety of species, including bank-dwelling birds and insects plus a number of listed fish," Fredrickson said.

Rice farmer Jon Munger of Yuba City, president of the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau, said farmers have taken action to improve flood-protection infrastructure. He said farmers want to protect against environmental takings of their land for habitat purposes for overly large setback areas that don't provide flood-management benefits.

"We're particularly concerned that they are not giving any credit to existing production agriculture that is wildlife friendly," Munger said. "They just want to add more acres to the system, when they've proven they can't maintain what they have."

Already, Fredrickson said, by the conservation strategy's own count, the Sacramento River region contains habitat estimated at 89,000 acres, with another 33,000 acres of habitat existing in the San Joaquin River region. He said the strategy needs to consider more specifically the benefits of farming in the Central Valley.

"Huge areas of the valley and the bypasses are essentially compatible with flood and species' needs," he added. "In many places, there is a great symbiosis that can work remarkably well. At this point, though, these farmed lands are not counted in this report."

Jane Dolan, a member of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, said regarding the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, much focus is given to lands subject to flooding, given current facilities and operation of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Flood Management System, and flood risks in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The plan also incorporates regional planning into the long-term flood-management effort.

"There are three main components to this update that are going on, aiming toward 2017: How could this system be improved? How can we pay for that so that people and property are safer? And what can be done to improve the ecosystem and habitat recovery?" Dolan said.

She explained that during a flood, people's lives and urban infrastructure need to be protected, "so when you look at areas that might be improved, floodplain activity or levee setbacks, it is going to be where there's fewer structures."

Dolan said flood planners work under an "overarching, statutory requirement that improvements to the flood system are going to be first for people, second for safety and structure safety, and third to improve the ecosystem.

"We need to step forward and make sure that the importance of agriculture is addressed as well," she said.

At a meeting of the coordinating committee of the Central Valley flood board last week, Stacy Cepello of DWR said of the conservation strategy, "We tried to pick the path forward that works best for most all of us. Not everyone will agree with everything in there, but we believe that it is an approach that allows everyone to work together."

Fredrickson encouraged affected landowners to stay involved or to become involved in the process.

The draft document and several appendices are now available at www.water.ca.gov/conservationstrategy/cs_new.cfm. Additional appendices are undergoing final review and will be posted on that website as they are available. At that point, DWR will announce a deadline for comments to allow a full, 60-day review period for the document and appendices.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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