Improving Public Safety and the Health of Rivers in California's Central Valley

On June 29th, the Central Valley Flood Protection Board adopted the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan – a plan created by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) over the past five years as required by legislation passed in 2007.  The importance of this accomplishment has largely gone unnoticed because most Californians do not understand the severity of the problems the plan seeks to address. However, in California’s Central Valley, the lives and property of millions have been at severe risk of flooding, and the state has been potentially liable for billions in damages. Previous attempts to create a comprehensive flood management plan failed due to the daunting scale, complexity of the challenges and regional politics.  The adoption of the Flood Plan therefore ends decades of indecision, and begins to address the critical flood management issues for this vulnerable region.

The flood management system in the Central Valley has a tremendous impact on local land use and on the health of our rivers and wildlife. The Flood Plan therefore had to not only improve public safety, but also address the need for wise land use in floodplains, preserve desirable land uses such as agriculture, and support functioning riverine ecosystems.  To provide multiple benefits, the Flood Plan takes an innovative and modern approach out of recognition that traditional methods of flood protection (levees, dams, etc.,) have caused unintended problems and would not be sufficient to meet the needs for flood management going forward.

Recognizing the need to improve public safety while also restoring the health of rivers in the Central Valley, NRDC and a coalition of conservation groups worked with DWR over the past few years to support the development of the Flood Plan. Thanks in part to our efforts, the Flood Plan and the Flood Board’s resolution adopting the plan contains many good elements that support the use of cost-effective and multi-benefit flood management tools such as flood bypasses, providing measurable objectives for incorporating ecosystem function and the development of climate change adaptation strategies.

Now that the Flood Plan has been adopted, there is much work to be done to implement projects to improve public safety and protect our environment.   At the outset it will be critical to work DWR staff and the Flood Board to ensure the Flood Plan’s Conservation Strategy provides specific and quantifiable objectives and that the framework for regional planning is clearly defined and supports ongoing restoration efforts like the San Joaquin River Restoration Program.  As flood experts say – it is not a matter of if, but rather when, there is another major flood event.  California has been lucky over the past decade, but with so much at risk, there is no time to lose in moving forward.