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DWR adopts state flood plan update

Issue Date: September 6, 2017
By Christine Souza
A flood management plan by the state Department of Water Resources involves expansion of setback levees and bypasses, as well as retaining productive agriculture and increasing floodplain habitat, such as benefitting salmon on the Yolo Bypass.
Photo/Kate Campbell

The flooding catastrophe in Texas and along the Gulf Coast as a result of Hurricane Harvey is a reality check for those living in flood-prone areas, including in California.

Coincidentally, the day before Harvey caused such devastating flooding, on Aug. 25 the Central Valley Flood Protection Board—under the California Department of Water Resources—adopted the 2017 Central Valley Flood Prevention Plan Update. The update, required under the Central Valley Flood Protection Act of 2008, is meant to improve the Central Valley system of state and federal-backed levees.

The updated flood plan released in late August is designed to improve flood protection for over 1 million Californians and $70 billion in homes, businesses and infrastructure, and is the first five-year update since the plan was initially adopted in 2012.

Taking a new approach to flood management, DWR's strategy relies in part on use of farmland to create new "flood space" or system flow capacity that would come from new setback levees and bypass expansions. By taking a "multi-benefit approach," DWR also intends to restore river health and increase floodplain habitat for fish and wildlife. Other goals could include groundwater recharge, decreasing the risk of Delta levee failures, improving water quality and preserving agriculture.

DWR's 2012 plan caused controversy after proposing that 40,000 acres of farmland be used for bypass expansions (30,000 acres would remain farmable subject to flood easements and seasonal flooding), with 10,000 acres set aside for permanent habitat.

Richard Reinhardt, engineer for MBK Engineers based in Sacramento, and representative for the Central California Flood Control Association, said DWR involved local stakeholders, so the updated plan has therefore taken "a more targeted approach."

"The mistake they made in 2012 is they took a broad brush approach and said, 'we're going to take these agricultural lands and put them into the bypasses and 25 percent of that land we'll put into habitat,'" Reinhardt said. "What you often see from state and federal government is top-down planning. Whereas, we went in and talked to the property owners, talked to the reclamation districts and counties and devised a plan that they could get behind.

"Everybody is giving up something, but they are getting something in return," Reinhardt said.

Under the flood plan update, Reinhardt said, DWR divided the area into six geographic regions, "providing money so that those regions could organize themselves and build stakeholder consensus on a vision for flood management. To the extent that that vision matched the state's goals, the (local) plan would be eligible for grant funding for implementation."

Knowing that DWR's vision for the entire flood control system could not be accomplished immediately, Reinhardt said, the department proposes focusing over the next decade, on a phased series of levee setback and weir widening plans for the Yolo Bypass and for Paradise Cut off of the San Joaquin River.

While some improvements have been made, Justin Fredrickson, environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said "Concerns still remain for farmers in and adjacent to bypasses." These include: agricultural conversion and compatibility issues, disagreement on bypass expansions, questions about levee financing and proposed fees and reservations about conservation strategy habitat targets.

"Land retirement shouldn't be the only option when it comes to agricultural resources. Not only Paradise Cut, but other areas where they just widen the areas and take the land out of production," said San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. "That's some of our most valuable land and our best soil along these rivers. In terms of floodplains, we want to see areas maintain their agricultural productivity."

For the Yolo Bypass expansion, according to a basin-wide feasibility study that supports the 2017 update, which has local support, DWR's preferred option involves some 10,300 acres of land, of which DWR assumes 25 percent would be converted to habitat, with 75 percent likely retained in some form of agriculture, at an estimated cost of $1.8 to $2.4 billion, Fredrickson said. That's in contrast to a preferred option supported by local flood agencies, consisting of roughly some 4,550 acres, at an estimated cost of $1.5 to $2 billion.

David Burroughs, president of the Yuba-Sutter County Farm Bureau, said landowners in Yolo County are not necessarily opposed to the Yolo Bypass expansion south of their area, but it is a different story to the north.

"There may be some opportunities for strategic levee setbacks to straighten out bends in the river and flood points, but we do not agree with the notion of wholesale levee setbacks in Yuba-Sutter," Burroughs said. "In Sutter, they want to convert 50 percent of agriculture to riparian habitat. We oppose that."

Burroughs suggested that DWR consider the deterioration of the Oroville Dam spillway and how that has impacted the downstream channels.

"They need to restore channel capacities to the original specs. They need to be cleaning them up and removing the debris. There are millions of cubic yards of material in all of the channels that need to be removed," Burroughs said. "This plan was put into place before the Oroville debacle and that has exacerbated the loss of channel capacity."

In addition to bypass expansions, the flood plan update includes a conservation strategy to restore habitat. Fredrickson said of the strategy, "One of the things we fought hard for and was included is strong language that agriculture is a wise and compatible use of the floodplain that should be mitigated for and maintained as a dominant use."

Fredrickson added, "another key concession was clear language that the conservation strategy is a planning tool only, with no regulatory effect."

To fund the plan's implementation, which is estimated to cost up to $20 billion over a 20- to 25-year period, DWR included three new fee mechanisms, expected to be a topic of debate in the next phase of planning.

Fredrickson noted that one proposal is "reactivating the Sacramento-San Joaquin Drainage District fee, where lands benefitted by the flood project would be assessed and monies used to maintain and improve levees." A second idea is a river basin assessment in landowners are assessed and funds used for water and flood projects within each watershed. The third proposal involves a proposed state flood insurance program.

View the 2017 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan Update at Final-20170828.pdf.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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