Who deserves a levee? The fight to save California communities from flooding
The tiny town of Hamilton City sits in the direct path of the mighty Sacramento River, muddy and swollen by this week’s storms.
But a new $125 million levee system – the product of the community’s 35-year-long fight to make something big from something broken — is protecting its 1,900 farmworkers and their families.
This week, as a levee failure drowned the town of Pajaro, Hamilton City’s river also overflowed. But then it gently spread across a landscaped floodplain, losing its fury. The levee held firm. The system, the first of its type in the state, offers a new paradigm for how to respond to flood risk in an era of dangerous climate change.
“It’s doing what it’s supposed to do,” said former fire chief Jose Puente, who proudly watched the project excel in its big test.
There are 1,758 levee systems throughout California listed in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers database, built to hold back rivers and protect towns, homes, businesses and crops from flooding. Sixty years old on average, many are past their design lives. But the highest priority for replacing the structures is awarded to affluent urban areas, not small, rural and disadvantaged communities.
The tale of this town, two hours north of Sacramento, shows the challenge of protecting these modest places. Under a federal formula that weighs property values, the cost of building a levee to protect a small community far exceeds the economic benefit.
Like Pajaro, Hamilton City lives on the edge of a volatile river. Like Pajaro, its residents are largely low-income Latinos. Like Pajaro, it repeatedly sought federal funds to fix its levee, and was repeatedly rebuffed.
But there are differences, and that’s what saved Hamilton City. A group of six farmers, most of them now dead, started the construction campaign decades ago. It stayed unified and relentless in its focus. Volunteers, supported by homespun “Levee Festivals,” made 15 trips to Washington, D.C., knocking on doors in Congress to win the hearts of political heavyweights such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former Sen. Barbara Boxer and others.
A Bay Area News Group analysis of the U.S. Army Corps’ National Levee Database found that 48 California levee systems are categorized as moderate to very high risk, 743 miles out of 5,400 total levee miles in the state. In greatest peril, it found, are four levees in the Sacramento Valley: one in Natomas, along the Sacramento River; two along the American River, above Sacramento, and the fourth along the Feather River, threatening the towns of Yuba City, Live Oak, Gridley and Biggs.
Many have been improved over the past decade, but others don’t meet modern engineering standards, according to the 2019 Report Card for California’s Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gives the state’s levees a “D” rating. They can’t cope with the pressures of a changing climate, strict environmental regulations, rigorous maintenance needs, updated safety standards and rising construction costs.
“We have to continuously invest in California’s levee infrastructure. Otherwise, it goes away. It fails,” said Glendale civil engineer Yazdan Emrani, chair of the Society’s infrastructure policy committee.
But who deserves protection? While the responsibility to prevent floods lies with local communities, the funds to replace levees come largely from state and federal budgets. The government can’t afford to replace every levee. With fierce competition for money, projects must be prioritized.
To win funding, a town must prove that for every dollar spent on the project, there is at least a dollar of benefit. While the impacts of six factors — healthy and resilient ecosystems; sustainable economic development; floodplains; public safety; environmental justice; and watershed — are weighed, a community’s economic value weighs heavily, because it is easy to measure and compare projects, he said.
“The methodology measures: ‘How much is it going to cost? And how much are we going to save?’ ” said flood expert Scott Shapiro of the Sacramento law firm Downey Brand, who serves as general counsel for the Central Valley Flood Protection Board.
This cost-benefit approach is much more equitable than the historic tradition of “earmarking” funds, where powerful members of Congress steered money to their pet projects, he said. But it favors more prosperous areas.
San Jose, for instance, has 100-year flood protection from the Guadalupe River, thanks to a $350 million project from Interstates 280 to 880. A newer $256 million project from the Children’s Discovery Museum south to Blossom Hill Road protects against the upper river. At the peak of last Tuesday’s storm, the river’s channel was filled to only 20% of capacity.
Smaller but fast-growing places, like the Central Valley town of Lathrop, can afford to “self-fund” plans through development fees, property taxes and special assessments. Home to the valuable real estate of Tesla’s giant “megapack” battery factory, a new VA hospital, two rail lines, the I-5 Interstate highway and burgeoning subdivisions, Lathrop has positioned itself to win government support for a levee so strong that it will protect against a mighty 200-year flood.
But for small agricultural towns, the odds are stacked against them.
In Pajaro, “it’s been a real struggle to move the project forward with the Army Corps,” said Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency.
Pajaro’s problems started 50 years ago with a bad levee design. An improvement plan was proposed, then rejected in the 1970s by the region’s civic leaders and farmers, who resisted selling their land. There was neglected upkeep in the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, in 2019, the Agency secured $400 million in federal funding to rebuild the levee. [The start of construction was 1-2 years away when a relentless series of storms hit this winter.
Hamilton City’s levee was even worse. Built from sand in 1906 by the Holly Sugar Corporation to protect its sugar beet processing plant, since demolished, it was eroding. The town flooded in 1974 and was dangerously threatened in 1983, 1986, 1995, 1997 and 1998.
“Our farmers banded together and said ‘We need a solution. This has to change. We’re losing our crops. We’re losing our jobs. We’re losing our homes,’ ” said Lee Ann Grigsby-Puente, a local businesswoman and volunteer president of the effort, called Reclamation District 2140.
But the obstacles were great.
“The cost of the project dwarfed the value of nearby property and structures, so it made it nearly impossible to justify federal participation,” explained Paul Bruton of the U.S. Army Corps.
Meetings with officials were infuriating. “They told us: ‘You’ve got to help yourself before we can help you,’” recalled Jose Puente, Lee Ann’s husband. “OK,” he vowed. “We’re going to be a thorn in your butt.”
So the town recruited donors and the best carnitas cooks in town to help raise funds for lawyers, lobbyists and annual trips to Washington, D.C.
“Wherever we could get in the door to talk about our project we went,” said Grigsby-Puente, dubbed “The Queen of Levees” by U.S. Rep. John Garamendi. “There was a constant push.”
Almost imperceptibly, the tide began shifting. Faced with climate change, funders were increasingly willing to consider nature-based systems.
Encouraged, Hamilton City hatched a new plan. Partnering with The Nature Conservancy, it reimagined what the project could be. Rather than confining the angry river, it would give it more room. The levee could be moved far from the river’s edge. A wide floodplain could create habitat and let the river widen.
Seeing proof of both environmental and economic benefits, the Corps agreed to fund most of the project. State and other organizations paid for the rest.
“It seemed like it took forever. We wanted to quit many times. But perseverance — plain old stubbornness — kept us going,” said Grisby-Puente.
Facing a week of more rain, the town rests easy. But it is haunted by Pajaro’s devastation, reminding it of what could have been.
“Our heart just breaks for Pajaro,” she said. “Because we know we know what it’s like.”