California Raises Flood Protection Costs in Farm Country

California officials say up to $30 billion is needed to protect the state’s agricultural heartland from major flooding over the next three decades

Climate change is worsening the already significant threat of flooding in California’s farm country, and state officials said Thursday that up to $30 billion could be needed over three decades to protect the region, an increase from compared to five years ago.

Every five years, flood protection plans are updated for the Central Valley, where around 1.3 million people live at risk in the floodplains. State officials released a draft of the latest update that calls for investing in levees, maintenance and multiple-benefit projects that recharge aquifers and support wildlife while improving flood protection.

Investments are needed to protect a growing region where climate change is expected to increase the risk of heavy rains and flooding, especially for the San Joaquin River Basin.

“Climate change is no longer the future boogeyman it once was. It’s here,” said Kristopher Tjernell, deputy director of integrated watershed management at the California Department of Water Resources.

The cost of maintenance and new construction has increased in part due to these changes and a better understanding of what is needed, depending on the project.

The 2017 flood plan update called for investments of $17 billion to $21 billion over three decades. Since that update, approximately $4.4 billion has been allocated.

The latest draft indicates that the need is now $25-30 billion over the next 30 years. These investments, however, will save lives and property, according to the plan.

In 2017, extreme weather conditions forced authorities to use the emergency spillway at Oroville Dam, about 120 kilometers north of Sacramento. Water falling over the spillway caused erosion and nearly 200,000 people were temporarily evacuated as a precaution.

California is in the grip of drought and this spring continues to be dry. Snowfall is well below average, reservoirs are low, and officials fear a bad wildfire season. But not having enough rain and snow now doesn’t mean the risk of flooding is gone, said Nicholas Pinter, who studies watersheds at the University of California, Davis.

“These updates are usually to keep flooding interested,” especially during a multi-year drought, Painter said. It’s important not to overlook problems even if they don’t happen immediately, he said.

Finding enough money is a challenge, according to the project. Public funds are insufficient and it is difficult to persuade local communities to pay enough for flood management, according to the plan. However, the opportunities to grab more federal dollars are increasing.

Officials said tackling climate change requires projects that do more than just prevent flooding. Allowing floodwaters to spread out can also help recharge aquifers and improve habitat.

“It’s a big watershed, and we need to work together,” said Julie Rentner, president of conservation group River Partners.

Rentner said the plan calls for additional spending on multi-benefit projects, showing officials are taking them seriously.

The plan also calls for monitoring performance and ensuring disadvantaged areas are properly protected, according to the draft.

The public can submit comments on the project until early June. The Central Valley Flood Protection Board is responsible for reviewing the comments and adopting the update.


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