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Fall 2008

Does Habitat Trump Public Safety?

As the seasons change, we are reminded of the danger of flooding here in the Central Valley of California. The beauty that surrounds us surpasses any other, and each year as farmers plant and harvest their fields we count our blessings, to live in such beautiful agricultural communities. But those same communities are at risk of flooding and for years rural communities have been pitted against urban communities for increased flood control. Many feel that since Unanticipated Sutter Bypass levee failure during the 1997 floods.we have crops behind our levees that we should become a sacrifice zone for those in the big cities.  It is the responsibility of many state and federal agencies to assure that all the residents of California are safe from flooding, especially flooding that could have been avoided.

Family Water Alliance has advocated for increased flood control for nearly two decades and has raised the issue of maintenance to our degraded flood control system to assure that the entire system is functioning as designed. Through the persistence of many local residents, our north state elected officials and our local governments, attention is finally being given to the true danger we are in.

One point of contention is the Sutter Bypass, which is a designated floodway which takes water off the Sacramento River during high water events. The designated floodway is also home to the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge since the 1940’s. The management of the bypass as part of the flood conveyance system and a National Wildlife Refuge presents many challenges, but the law is clear that the “Bypass will be kept clear of any vegetation that impedes floodwaters”.

The management of the Refuge is done by U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in coordination with the Department of Water Resources and recently, USFWS sent out their fifteen-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan for comment. Weigh-in from locals is vital to the protection and the public safety of our community. The1997 Sutter Bypass catastrophic levee failure. Sutter Wildlife Refuge drew many comments that called for flood protection for the communities to be number one. Unfortunately, our federal government has a conflicting regulation that requires wildlife to be number one priority. 

These conflicting positions create many regulatory issues that are difficult to address, but one thing is clear, the flowage easements that properties within the Sutter Bypass are subject to cannot be ignored, and it is the role of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board (CVFPB) to enforce such easements. At the October board meeting of the CVFPB, the Board heard the frustration of many local residents as they asked for attention to be given to the Sutter Bypass.

The requests of the locals did not fall on deaf ears. Board members realized the jurisdictional problem that the state faces when the federal government owns land within a designated floodway. Also, the Board understood the need to get an accurate two-dimensional hydraulic model of the bypass to assure that the bypass is functioning as designed. Board Chairman Ben Carter directed staff to work with the local communities to address this issue in hopes that at next months meeting the Board would be able to pass a resolution to formally address the concerns of Sutter and Colusa County local governments and residents.

In conclusion, it is encouraging to see the CVFPB understands what locals have known for many years, it is vital that our communities are safe from flooding. The 1997 Meridian levee break was just upstream from a large grove of trees within the Sutter Bypass, this is no coincidence. This is a true threat to public safety. ■

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