Flood planning could result in loss of farmland

Issue Date: April 27, 2016
By Kate Campbell

Options outlined in new feasibility studies for improving flood protection in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins detail a number of scenarios that could—depending on options selected—take hundreds to thousands of agricultural acres out of production. The land would be used for increased flood-flow space and habitat.

The newly released document, "Basin-Wide Feasibility Studies for the Sacramento River Basin," includes proposals that could become part of the final, updated 2017 Central Valley Flood Management Plan. A similar San Joaquin River study evaluates options for improving overall flood management system performance in the San Joaquin River Basin.

Farm Bureau specialists who have been following the flood-planning process urge property owners in the flood-plan areas to learn more about the feasibility studies and comment before a May 6 deadline.

The state Department of Water Resources said revised drafts of the feasibility studies are expected to be released this summer, based on comments submitted in May.

Claudia Street, executive director of the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau, said the Sacramento River Basin plan has implications for farmers in the region.

"Our Farm Bureau members have been watching discussions about proposed flood-plan expansion in the Sutter Bypass for years," Street said. "They've resisted expansions because (lands) typically turn into habitat."

Conversion of farmland into wildlife habitat is counterproductive for the purpose of the bypass, she said, noting that adding habitat protection doesn't protect against flood.

"In this new feasibility study, planners not only show Feather and Sutter bypass expansions, but also reintroduce changes to the Cherokee Canal—a hot issue taken off the table for a while—and now a new expansion of the Wadsworth Canal," Street said.

Because the feasibility study options have the potential to take rice land, orchards and irrigated pasture out of production, Street said, "we really want our farmers and ranchers to look at this study and see how the proposals might impact them."

DWR said the documents evaluate various combinations of levee setbacks, weir expansions, new bypass channels and storage management opportunities, with integrated ecosystem-restoration actions to refine the scale and locations of system-wide improvements identified in a 2012 flood plan.

Colleen Cecil, Butte County Farm Bureau executive director, said for farmers in the flood-plan area, "there's a lot at stake."

"My biggest concern with this flood-plan project is that it's not the only project that could take agricultural land out of production," Cecil said.

She said there are many plans proposing to take farmland for various reasons. The plans developed by different agencies don't appear to be coordinated, Cecil said, and the plans aren't evaluated to determine how much land overall is involved.

The basin-wide feasibility study for the Sacramento River evaluates actions for improving the capacity, flexibility and resiliency of the flood-management system as a whole, state flood planners said in the study's introduction.

The document does not take into account other proposed land-use changes and how they might affect flood-management operations. It primarily evaluates options for improving the Sacramento Valley bypass system, including potential expansion of the Yolo Bypass, Sacramento Bypass and Sutter Bypass, as well as the potential for creating a new Feather River bypass.

Planners said the study marks the first detailed evaluation of various combinations of flood-management changes and system additions since more comprehensive flood-protection planning began about a decade ago.

Analysts say the current feasibility study includes a recommended option in the Yolo Bypass estimated to cost $2.4 billion, versus a regional option with a smaller footprint priced closer to $2 billion. Action on additional flood modifications along the Sutter Bypass and in the Feather River Basin would be deferred until sometime after 2030, while "storage needs" options would not be considered until around 2035.

Costs of proposed flood-system changes would fall on state and local agencies, said Justin Fredrickson, California Farm Bureau Federation environmental policy analyst.

"Federal funding could be part of the financial equation," Fredrickson said, "but the history of funding these projects is that federal assistance lags significantly, if it comes at all."

As a result, there already is a big backlog of state and local projects awaiting federal reimbursement, he said. To implement everything in the overall flood plan could cost between $16 billion and $18 billion, though Fredrickson said it's far from clear where the money would come from.

"The other aspects of the feasibility plan focus on structural versus nonstructural approaches and habitat versus flood-control aspects," Fredrickson said. "The state options include ecosystem improvements in place of traditional flood-control fixes because, from the state's perspective, that's the only way to get both federal and state agencies to share the cost."

A potential shortcoming of the feasibility study, he said, is that it would set aside large acreages of farmland for new bypasses "without meaningfully considering potential options for flood relief from channel maintenance and new storage or upstream reservoir modifications in the same time frame."

"Farm Bureau would like to see the state work more closely with local people and agencies to minimize impacts to farmland and local economies, and to integrate elements of flood-planning options that have won local support," Fredrickson said.

CFBF will comment on the feasibility study on behalf of Farm Bureau members, he said, but he encouraged individual farmers and ranchers to submit comments as well.

Fredrickson said farmers and ranchers in areas included in the flood plans should check the CFBF website for summary information and key excerpts from the feasibility study. 

Additional background and key excerpts from the feasibility studies are available on CFBF's website here.

He said DWR will have the most current online information about the flood planning process at www.water.ca.gov/cvfmp/.

(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.