I'll add this without comment: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/01/30/MNGO7GVLK41.DTL
Developers of a tract in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta east of Mount Diablo don't worry that the land is 6 feet below sea level and kept dry by a system of pumps and aging levees not considered adequate for urban growth.
They have begun building new, privately funded earthen levees within the existing dikes that would allow for as many as 5,200 new houses on the Hotchkiss Tract. And the booming Contra Costa city of Oakley is eager to annex the growth into its borders.
Driven by the demand for new housing from the Bay Area to Sacramento, tens of thousands of homes are planned on land that state and federal officials say is among the most threatened with catastrophic flooding in the nation. In Oakley and elsewhere, developers and city officials claim the new levees will protect people far better than existing levees, which California's political leaders say are crumbling.
"It's like comparing a brand new Mercedes with a horse cart,'' said Rebecca Willis, Oakley's director of community development. "Levees today are structurally sound. Levees built 100 years ago were not.''
But critics including state officials, environmentalists and academics say that urbanizing such floodplains is unwise, even madness, particularly after Hurricane Katrina broke through federally certified levees in New Orleans.
"I think it is just insane that we would be building houses below sea level,'' said Mathias Kondolf, who is organizing a conference on delta development this spring at UC Berkeley, where he is an associate professor of environmental planning.
State elected officials and bureaucrats are worried about the potential economic and social effects of a levee failure next to new developments or existing urban areas in the delta and other parts of the state, particularly the Central Valley. They are considering selling bonds to fund levee improvements, better mapping of risk zones and requiring all homeowners behind levees to have flood insurance, among other measures.
Developers are unapologetically turning to flood-prone lands, particularly in the delta, as the Bay Area's urban footprint expands eastward. Nearly 40,000 homes that could get flooded if a levee failed are planned in the cities of Lathrop (San Joaquin County), Oakley and Stockton alone.
"Many opportunities for development lie in areas protected by levees,'' said Don Hofer, a vice president for Shea Homes of Northern California, which has started building the first of 1,330 homes approved on Hotchkiss Tract.
As with other development in flood areas, the project will feature artificial lakes to capture storm water. "Waterfront'' homes will cost as much as $800,000.
Hofer and other building industry representatives say the flood threat to new development is being distorted and oversold. New development will improve flood protection on Hotchkiss Tract, he said, because local officials have required builders to construct interior levees that at least meet the federal "100-year flood'' standard -- the level thought to protect against a storm that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year.
The new levees there will be taller, wider and better engineered than the old ones, with dirt pounded down to create the strength to withstand earthquakes, Hofer said, although critics say the threat of quakes has not been given enough attention.
Hofer said just his company's development alone will also provide $3.8 million over 30 years through assessments to help improve and maintain the old levees on the tract, though it is not expected that those levees will provide 100-year protection to the tract's 544 existing residences. Many of those structures do not have ground-floor living areas and some are on stilts.
State officials, who have little authority over local land use, say the federal flood standard is inadequate, and they want all urban areas to have levees that provide at least 200-year flood protection. With climate change, storms getting larger and sea levels rising, they say, the flood danger appears to be increasing.
Large existing urban areas, including much of Sacramento, don't meet the 100-year threshold, and state and federal remapping efforts will probably reveal others, said Ricardo Pineda, chief of floodplain management for the state Department of Water Resources. If local governments cannot prove that critical levees are worthy of certification, existing urban areas could be added to the floodplain maps, he said.
A 2005 report by the agency said much of the development planning in the Central Valley has been "based on poor and outdated information regarding the seriousness of the flood threat.'' Many flood maps used by decisionmakers are old and inaccurate; others assumed existing levees provided 100-year flood protection when they probably do not, the report concluded.
Dave Chan, a resident of South Sacramento for more than two decades, says his neighborhood needs more flood protection, but he doesn't worry about it. He knows local officials are working to strengthen the levees.
"You live by the river, you're aware of it,'' said Chan, who has flood insurance. "I just don't pay attention after a while.''
Some developers in Lathrop and Stockton -- which has been adding about 3,000 homes a year, primarily below surrounding waters -- are building new levees or raising existing ones to levels they say will protect against catastrophic flooding.
Developers of the 11,000-home River Islands development on an island called Stewart Tract in Lathrop say their project will lower the threat of flooding to the rest of the city by moving existing levees and widening flood channels. "We think what we are doing is exemplary,'' said Susan Dell'Osso, River Islands' project director, who estimated predevelopment costs so far have topped $80 million.
But the city of Lathrop has also approved nearly 9,000 other homes behind levees that the state water agency warned in 2003 appeared to be inadequate for protecting an urban area. Those levees are federally certified as meeting the 100-year criteria, but in 1997 they had problems with seepage; as much as 2 feet of water collected on the ground and residents were evacuated, Pineda said.
"We think those levees have problems, and we don't see the city of Lathrop addressing those issues at this point,'' he said. City Manager Pam Carder said other experts disagreed but the city set development back far enough to allow for future levee improvements.
On Hotchkiss Tract, the plan is for developers to remove land from the federal floodplain by building dry levees inside existing levees. Those levees will be turned over to Reclamation District 799, which now has only two full-time employees and a budget of $186,000. Assessments on new homes are expected to generate $3.8 million for improvements to the exterior levee system -- although they will not be brought up to the 100-year level because existing homes are in the way.
Reclamation district Chairman Joe Spotts, a resident for 35 years who owns a boat brokerage, repair and supply business, said he is confident the development plan will work, and thinks it will help the local economy. In addition to the Hotchkiss Tract, the city of Oakley is processing plans for 1,400 more homes nearby, in the current floodplain. "We've been living behind these levees for many, many, many years, and failures have been very minor,'' he said.
For large-scale developers, it is highly desirable that levees be federally certified and that nearby land not appear on federal flood maps. Homes in floodplains cannot have ground-floor living space and buyers must carry national flood insurance in order to get a federally backed mortgage.
But not appearing on a floodplain map does not eliminate the potential for flooding, as was illustrated in New Orleans where levees that exceeded the 100-year flood standards failed, said Peter Rabbon, executive director of the state Reclamation Board, which cooperates with agencies of federal, state and local governments in establishing, planning, constructing, operating, and maintaining flood control works.
Anxiety among state officials about the cost of property damage due to flooding increased greatly after a court held two years ago that the state was liable for flooding that resulted from the failure of a levee in Yuba County in 1986. Last year, the state paid $450 million to Yuba County property owners who suffered damage from the 1986 floods, and an additional $50 million for flood damage in 1997.
The Yuba County levee that failed was part of a 1,600-mile system of state-supervised levees along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries that today protect 500,000 people, 200,000 structures and $54 billion worth of property. There are 800 miles of delta levees the state does not manage.
In June 2004, a levee failed unexpectedly in dry weather on the Upper Jones Tract in San Joaquin County, flooding 12,000 acres of farmland.
Some federal reimbursement is expected, but the state has spent $50 million dealing with the disaster, which disabled for two months the pumps in Tracy that ship water to urban and agricultural users south.
"The state is saying it's not going to do that anymore,'' said state Sen. Michael Machado, D-Linden (San Joaquin County), one of the principal authors of legislation to sell state bonds that would in part pay for levee repairs.
"I advise everybody to get flood insurance.''