Commentary: Public must stay involved in Central Valley flood planning


Issue Date: May 2, 2012
By Justin Fredrickson
A plan to reduce flooding from the Sacramento River, above, and other Central Valley streams could affect tens of thousands of acres of farmland.
Photo/Steve Adler
Justin Fredrickson

For much of this year, Farm Bureau has been urging the state to change its Draft Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, to minimize its impact on farmland and other agricultural resources. We've made progress with state officials and still have hope that the plan will be amended further.

But we've also made surprising discoveries about the plan that indicate its impact on farmland could be even greater than we first thought.

Here's an update:

In reviewing the draft plan, we discovered that its major thrust was to increase flood protection in urban areas and increase opportunities for habitat restoration by creating large levee setbacks and additional flood bypass areas on a total of about 40,000 acres, mostly agricultural land, from Butte and Colusa counties in the north, to southern San Joaquin County in the south.

In other words, 40,000 acres of land now on the landward side of levees would instead be on the water side. This would include 4,000 acres along the existing Sutter Bypass in Sutter County; 5,000 acres for a proposed, new Feather Bypass in Butte County; 25,500 acres in the Yolo Bypass; 1,300 acres in the vicinity of the existing Sacramento River Bypass; and 1,000 acres in the south delta.

Up to 30,000 of these 40,000 acres would continue to be farmed, but land that had flooded seldom or never would now flood more frequently, longer and potentially deeper—and crop choices would be restricted to a list of floodway-friendly annual crops. And 10,000 acres would become permanent habitat, with the farmed lands becoming neighbors of the habitat areas.

When the California Farm Bureau became aware of these impacts, we began working with county Farm Bureaus and with other agricultural stakeholders to raise the awareness of these issues. We spoke with representatives of the Department of Water Resources and the Central Valley Flood Protection Board. We encouraged members to send letters and attend meetings.

As a result of these and other efforts, we feel agriculture is now much further along on these issues. We succeeded in raising the profile of the concerns of potentially affected rural and agricultural communities, and we hope many of those concerns will be meaningfully addressed in plan changes from the flood board prior to final adoption of the plan this summer.

Still, many of our original concerns with the plan remain—and others have come to our attention.

For example, we and other agricultural stakeholders were dismayed to discover, in an obscure appendix to the draft flood plan, numerous details suggesting that the total footprint of the plan is, in fact, significantly larger.

Beyond the 40,000 acres of setback levees and bypass expansions, we have also learned that an overlapping total of 50,000 to 75,000 acres of Central Valley farmland would be placed under easement and utilized as "transitional storage"—that is, as a safety valve or temporary overflow area for large peak flows in big floods.

We also discovered that the plan proposes to place 70,000 to 115,000 acres of farmland under agricultural conservation easements, to discourage urban growth in rural areas and promote "wildlife friendly agriculture."

None of this was directly discussed in the flood plan and associated environmental documents, nor was it ever clearly discussed in any public meeting with agricultural stakeholders of which we are aware.

So, where does this leave us?

First, a final plan, incorporating any changes from the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, is scheduled for adoption by July 1. The official deadline for comments on the plan closed on April 20. But flood board deliberations continue, and the board has indicated it will continue to consider public input through adoption of the final plan.

The board's proposed changes to the plan, in response to public comments, will be the subject of two public workshops in May.

Where this leaves us, then, is with an imperative need for continuing input, participation and representation from potentially affected agricultural communities, prior to adoption of a final plan.

As Central Valley agricultural stakeholders, we can hardly pretend that legislative mandates for increased urban flood protection and compatible ecosystem improvement do not exist. However, we also cannot accept that there is only one way to accomplish the legislative objectives.

Strong protection for the state's agricultural base should be a key goal of the plan in concert with its other goals. Flood planners must seek additional options to accomplish the legislative objectives, while at the same time more meaningfully addressing, avoiding and minimizing the plan's impact to rural and agricultural areas.

(Justin Fredrickson is environmental policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at jfredrickson@cfbf.com.)

For additional information on the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan and how to get involved, see the CFBF Flood Protection Web page at www.cfbf.com/issues/water/flood/. The Central Valley Flood Protection Board website can be found at www.cvfpb.ca.gov.

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