The Ukiah Daily Journal
Flood control cuts slow restoration progress
CHICO >> As California grappled with drought conditions over the past three years, flooding was the last thing on most people's minds. That changed this month when bomb cyclone rainstorms saturated the state and left communities reeling from rushing water.
Unbeknownst to many, work on flood control progressed during the dry times. Chico-based River Partners has supplemented repairs to levies by restoring watersheds in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. The group, in cooperation with state and federal agencies along with other nonprofits, has rehabilitated over 13,500 acres of river corridors since 1998.
Much of this work is on hold, however, after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced deep cuts to the state budget that hit flood plain projects particularly hard. From funding levels of $250 million a year, the governor cut flooding mitigation to $135 million — a fraction of the $360 million to $560 million called for in the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan adopted in 2012 and updated last year. The state also is holding back previously allocated funds, including $40 million for River Partners projects.
“We definitely felt blindsided on Jan. 10 when the governor released his proposed budget,” said Julie Rentner, president of River Partners. “One of the things that we've heard quite a lot is the budget was put together largely in November; if we'd had these rainstorms (then), if we'd had the benefit to see into the future and see what the damages would be from flooding, then probably the proposed budget would have had a different balance of cuts.”
Damage in California from this month's floods has been estimated at over $30 billion.
“In the San Joaquin Valley, River Partners has a pipeline of almost $200 million worth of flood plain expansion projects that we need to get going on right away,” Rentner said. “They don't have much of a shelf life: Those projects, especially ones that involve land acquisition, they're very fleeting.
“We were elated in September, when we had a lot of support and thought we were going to get going on these projects that are ripe, ready to go and will only be around for another handful of months. Unfortunately, this budget really gave the haircut to the flood system improvements that are needed, at a time when flood damages really ramped up.”
The north Sacramento Valley will feel the pinch, too. River Partners has restoration sites near Chico and Hamilton City along with three in the works near Colusa and Princeton. Rentner is looking for federal grants and fundraising to offset cuts from the state, should the Legislature approve the governor's proposal.
“I'm hopeful that our legislators will pull together, make a coordinated effort to get some of that flood money back into the budget,” Rentner said. “I think the storms in January — and who knows what the rest of this water year has in store for us — are probably going to help bolster the pitch.”
River Partners focuses on returning riverfronts to their natural condition. Planting native species encourages the rebound of wildlife populations, including endangered and threatened species of birds, fish and pollenating insects. Connecting acreage in wetlands fosters the flow of water to replenish underground aquifers.
The project closest to Chico is Bidwell-sacramento River State Park along River Road, south of Scotty's Landing. The Butte County Resource Conservation District joined California State Parks to push the work forward.
“Flood plain restoration is an important aspect for items like groundwater recharge and habitat improvements,” said Thad Walker, district manager of resource conservation district. “Those corridors along rivers provide special habitat that we really need and has been removed. (Restoration) has an impact not only habitat but working lands as well — farming.”
This work has an economic impact as well. Projects employ local workers, and Rentner said River Partners relies on local vendors for seeds, plants, equipment and other supplies.
“In November, what we thought were big climate drivers were making sure that we adequately deal with the fire risk and that we're investing in drought solutions,” she noted. “To be flipped on our heads so quickly, talking about flood solutions, validates our flood plain restoration approach. These waters that we're able to spread across vast flood plains sinks back into the ground and helps with the drought problem.
“Here we are, just two months later, and that weather whiplash is showing us it's also a public safety assessment.”