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Flood control for Natomas is one city focal point for 2012

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Flood protection – particularly in the Natomas area – is a top priority for the city going into the new year as the City Council Law and Legislation Committee approved the city’s legislative priorities at last week’s meeting.

“I wonder what New Orleans’ priorities were a year before Hurricane Katrina hit?” asked City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby Tuesday. “Was it working on that levee? Probably not.”

Ashby’s District 1 includes the Natomas Basin – an area surrounded by 42 miles of levees and vulnerable to floodwaters.

There has not been a significant flood in the Natomas Basin since the levees were constructed in the late 1800s, Rick Johnson, executive director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA), said in an email Monday.

However, the Natomas levees nearly failed in the flood of 1986.

“Fortunately, emergency repairs averted a major catastrophe,” Johnson said.

That event led to a review by the Army Corps of Engineers that downgraded the level of flood protection for the area and made Sacramento second only to New Orleans in its vulnerability to a catastrophic flood.

Between 1990 and 1997, SAFCA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the State Reclamation Board made major improvements to the levees, Johnson said, but even stricter federal safety standards were adopted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) remapped the Sacramento region in December 2008 – showing the Natomas basin to be within the 100-year floodplain – and a moratorium was placed on construction in the basin.

It also mandated area homeowners buy flood insurance, which can cost up to $1,300 a year, according to a press release from the office of Congresswoman Doris Matsui.

In order to get the moratorium removed so building and development of the area can resume, SAFCA began construction of the Natomas Levee Improvement Program.

“By the end of (2011), SAFCA will have completed approximately 50 percent of the (levee) project,” Johnson said. “This includes 18 miles of levee improvements along the Natomas Cross Canal and Sacramento River east levee.”

The total project cost is estimated at just under $1 billion, according to the 2011 District Annual Report from Ashby’s office.

In order to be eligible for federal dollars for the project, a portion of the cost had to be paid for with funds from state, county, city and local sources.

“The residents in Natomas have taxed themselves twice to bring in their local matching funds,” Ashby said.

Natomas property owners agreed to taxes in April 2007 and again in April 2011, Johnson said, bringing in $160 million.

All totaled – state, county, city and local funding sources – $510 million of the $1 billion estimated project cost has been collected so far.

“All we need now is the federal portion,” Ashby said.

In January, Matsui introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would authorize additional construction work on the levees in Natomas.

The tricky part is, Ashby said, that the federal government will not authorize the funds because, as the legislation is written, it is considered an “earmark” – and earmarks have been prohibited in the House of Representatives.

Earmarks are funds that benefit a single congress member’s district.

“Post-Katrina, the federal government spent $15 billion to repair New Orleans levees,” Ashby said, “and tens of billions of dollars more to make repairs afterward to roads, schools and buildings – New Orleans to this day is not the same."

Natomas is asking for less than 3 percent of that cost to prevent a Katrina-type disaster in Sacramento, Ashby said.

Because of the mandatory flood insurance for Natomas homeowners, Ashby said that 100 percent of the people would have a claim to rebuild their home in the event of such a disaster.

“You’re talking about a lot of homes – expensive homes – a lot of people and a lot of businesses,” Ashby said. “We’d be looking at hundreds of thousands of (insurance) claims.”

In order to prevent all of that, Ashby said, all we need is to finish a levee.

Typically, the Army Corps of Engineers is the lead in constructing flood control projects, Johnson said. The Army Corps of Engineers currently estimates that – once the project is federally authorized – the work on the Natomas levees could be completed by 2019.

The timing of when the corps can fully complete the project will depend on when federal authorization is obtained, Johnson said.

Although the moratorium would be lifted with the authorization, mandatory flood insurance will remain in effect until the project is 100 percent complete.

Melissa Corker is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twiter @MelissaCorker.

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