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Revised FEMA Flood Risk Maps Raise Ire

Many California cities and counties are wrestling with flood waters these days, but, perhaps more importantly, they are also wrestling with revised flood risk maps issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The new maps have raised the consternation of local government officials, homeowners and developers in numerous locales, and in a few places the new maps are forcing reconsideration of growth plans.

Federal officials offer few apologies and say they are simply following the orders of Congress, which directed FEMA to revisit flood maps in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. In fact, the federal remapping may be only the beginning of flood headaches for the Central Valley in particular. While FEMA is concerned with 100-year flood protection, 2007 state legislation pegs the standard of protection in the Central Valley at 200 years and, starting in 2015, prohibits development in areas lacking 200-year protection unless agencies prove they are taking steps to provide 200-year protection (see CP&DR, October 2007).

It's difficult to generalize regarding the FEMA remapping program because cities and counties are so different. Some local officials praise FEMA for considering local concerns, while others complain of a heavy federal hand in the remapping process. The local governments are also responding very differently to the new maps, with some digging in their heels and others rounding up money for improvements.

One primary issue is this: If a city or county cannot show that a flood-control levee is "certified" by the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA flood maps assume the levee does not exist. That was the case in the City of Chico, where a new FEMA risk map placed a substantial portion of the city in the 100-year floodplain. If the map were to stand, thousands of property owners would have to buy flood insurance, and new development would have to meet a variety of potentially expensive standards. The levees in question, along Sycamore and Mud creeks, were actually built by the Army Corps during the 1960s. They are owned by state Department of Water Resources (DWR) and maintained by Butte County. However, "It's mostly our citizens who are protected by the levees," Chico Building and Development Services Director Fritz McKinley said. "The city is taking the lead in this process."

The process has been mostly bureaucratic, not physical. It involves compiling the Army Corps' as-built drawings, county maintenance records, and new DWR testing data. Last June, the city and Butte County signed a "provisionally accredited levee" (PAL) agreement with FEMA, and the city has about one more year to convince the federal agency that the levees are sufficient.

McKinley said the episode has had little impact on planning or development because building has been very slow lately. "It does educate the public that they are living in an area protected by a levee," conceded McKinley. That education is a goal of both Congress and the state Legislature.

South of Chico in Yuba County, residents are well aware they live in an area reliant on levees, as Yuba County experienced disastrous floods during 1997, 1986, 1964, 1955 and 1950. The 1986 flood in the unincorporated communities of Linda and Olivehurst was the subject of the Paterno decision, in which the court ruled the state was liable for more then $400 million in property damage because of inadequate levee maintenance (see CP&DR, March 2005; CP&DR Legal Digest, January 2004). In addition, the county's largest growth area - Plumas Lake, located south of Marysville - has flooded several times.

However, Community Development Director Kevin Mallen contended Yuba County is actually a flood control success story. Thanks to impact fees from builders in Plumas Lake, property assessments and about $150 million in state bond funds, Yuba County is on track to complete a $400 million levee upgrade program later this year (see CP&DR Deals, December 2006). The program's central component is construction of about 30 miles of new levee along the Feather and Yuba rivers. The new structures replace 100-year-old levees built from mining tailings and native material.

"We started our levee improvement program in 2004," Mallen said. "We're now in a position where we are going to have our certification package to FEMA by April." He expects the final FEMA risk maps to identify a few new small stream hazards, but the county's populated areas will have 100-year flood protection. In addition, a general plan update will emphasize the critical nature of flood control in Yuba County, he said. "It's not just building levees, it's maintaining them."

While Yuba County's program for the east banks of the Feather River is nearing completion, Yuba City and Sutter County are still trying to figure out how to pay for about $200 million in needed improvements to the river's west bank levees. Virtually all of Sutter County, including Yuba City, lies in FEMA's revised 100-year floodplain, although flood maps for only the southern portion of the county are final. Still, until levee improvements are made, virtually all new building and most remodeling will have to meet expensive requirements, such as raised building pads, second-story living spaces and stem wall construction. Residents in Sutter County are scheduled to vote on property assessments later this year to raise about $80 million for levee improvements.

Farther south in San Joaquin County, FEMA identified "large areas of Stockton, a small area of Lodi and unincorporated areas of the county that are in the urban envelope" as being in the floodplain, said Connie Cochran, of the Stockton city manager's office. The initial risk maps had the potential to nearly shut down development in a broad area. However, the city, the county and several reclamation districts that own levees worked closely with FEMA for several years to refine the maps. In the end, about 3,800 parcels, mostly in Stockton's older Smith Canal neighborhood, were added to the floodplain, as well as some properties, mostly agricultural, in unincorporated San Joaquin County.

The bigger issue is the provisionally accredited status of levees protecting about 40,000 structures in Stockton, Lathrop, Manteca and the unincorporated communities of Weston Ranch and Brookside. The cities and county concede the levees in question do not meet Army Corps of Engineers design standards and are applying for $76 million in state grants to upgrade the levees. The situation threatens to slow development and redevelopment.

The revised FEMA maps are not impacting only the Central Valley. In Ventura County, for example, FEMA identified six uncertified levees that protect portions of Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo and Simi Valley. In Oxnard, a half-mile-long gap in a Santa Clara River levee threatened to halt development at the city's 700-acre RiverPark project (see CP&DR Places, April 2005). Oxnard officials, however, convinced FEMA to delay final map adoption because of erroneous topographic elevations. The 2 1/2-year delay gives Oxnard time to figure out how to pay for about $75 million in needed levee improvements, according to Rob Roshanian, Oxnard building and engineering services director.

"The way FEMA is doing the maps, they are not very accurate. People in D.C. are doing the maps for Oxnard," Roshanian complained. "They don't even have good topographic maps to work with."

Above the Central Valley, Calaveras County officials are dealing with the implications of new flood maps that place some of the Valley Springs area in the 100-year floodplain from Cosgrove Creek.

"There is a lot of development pressure in that area because there is some infrastructure around there," said David Pastizzo, a planner for the county. "There are several subdivisions being reviewed in the planning department right now." He could not say how the new flood maps will affect those proposals, but he warned that the maps could complicate a new community plan that has been in the works for several years.

Meanwhile, according to Chico's McKinley, the FEMA remapping serves as "kind of a precursor" to the more arduous 200-year flood requirement forthcoming for the Central Valley. Like many jurisdictions, Chico may need money for flood control improvements and increased maintenance to meet the mandate.

 Contacts:
Fritz McKinley, Chico Building and Development Services Department, (530) 879-6900.
Kevin Mallen, Yuba County Community Development Department, (530) 749-5430.
Rob Roshanian, Oxnard Building and Engineering Services Department, (805) 385-7893.
David Pastizzo, Calaveras County Planning Department, (209) 754-6394.
San Joaquin County flood information: www.co.san-joaquin.ca.us/pubworks/flood_info.htm.
Ventura County Watershed Protection District: www.vcwatershed.com/levee/index.html.
Flood & Thunderstorm Preparedness Guide: What To Do Before, During and After: http://ammo.com/articles/how-to-prepare-for-a-flood.


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