When I'm done having a career in water, I'll tell you guys about the new water rights system I've come up with.
Protection comes at a price
Marysville Appeal-Democrat – 12/18/06
By John Dickey, staff writer
A Sacramento flood-control organization is studying the idea of paying off rural Sutter County farmers to keep their land green - and perhaps under water.
Buried in a 400-page Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency report is the notion that keeping parts of Sutter and Yolo counties near the Fremont Weir rural, and their levees marginal, could take the strain off downstream Sacramento levees in high water.
The unimproved levees will break in the rural areas, so the theory goes, lowering river levels during floods.
The idea has fueled talk in parts of Sutter County, where farmers are mulling over whether they would take the money and flood, and others are in disbelief, worried that their lives will be changed.
“Probably the most common thought is Big Brother in Sacramento has so much investment in that area, we're going to have to stick together to protect ourselves,” said Dick Akin, a Robbins area rancher and former Sutter County supervisor.
He said people were talking about it at the Robbins School play.
Roy Osterli II, a board member for RD 1001, which sits just north of the Natomas Basin, said he's talked to a half dozen people.
Their first take is “you've got to be kidding,” said Osterli. “Then, ‘You can't do this.'”
Sacramento has one of the lowest levels of flood protection of any U.S. city, according to the agency. Its levees provide only a 77-year level of flood protection. New Orleans had a 250-year level.
SAFCA, which is looking to improve flood control, has issued an environmental impact report on financing the work. The report briefly mentions the idea of acquiring easements in Sutter and Yolo counties.
Rural levee failures upstream and downstream of the Fremont Weir could lower river levels by a foot, according to the report. So preserving these would-be flood plains from development is a possible strategy SAFCA could pursue through voluntary easements.
“The easements would thus diminish the likelihood that the rural levees protecting these properties would be upgraded to an urban standard,” the report says.
Sutter County Supervisor Dan Silva, who is on SAFCA's board, said fixing the 63 miles of RD 1001 levees to withstand a 200-year flood really can't be justified based on the number of homes.
Under the cost-benefit analysis used to justify federal government spending on flood prevention, any spending has to result in savings that outweigh the costs, making it hard for rural areas to get their levees fixed.
But some say Sacramento would have to pay dearly to make Sutter County its flood plain. While the area is farmland, it's far from worthless.
“If they do this, they're not going to get it for nothing,” said Akin.
If flooding hits RD 1001, Osterli said several hundred acres of orchards near the river would flood. Also inundated would be the Rio La Paz Golf Club and nearby expensive homes.
Most important, the intersection of Highways 70 and 99 would flood, cutting off one of Yuba-Sutter's escape routes, said Osterli. Silva disagreed, saying he does not think the water would be “tremendously deep.”
Akin said economic issues to consider include where to move the 3 million bags of rice that are dried and stored in the Robbins area.
He and others would have to move farming headquarters out of the area, driving up costs.
Nothing is “written in stone” on an idea that has been kicked around for more than two years, said Silva.
“It's just a concept at this point,” he said.
Robert Mackensen, president of the Sutter County Taxpayers Association, was skeptical.
“We can't adequately evaluate it until we learn more about it, but it comes as a shock that SAFCA is considering writing off a section of Sutter County to protect a section of Sacramento,” said Mackensen. #
A few things bugged me when I read that article. In the first place, I was sad that growers a hundred miles north of us feel so estranged from the city that eats their produce that they describe any proposal as a hostile takeover. Second, I was mad that there was so much stupid rhetoric being thrown around. I’m sure it felt good to say, but stuff like calling Sacramento “Big Brother” is not going to help discussion. Also, I don’t believe the quotes. I’ve met a lot of growers and I do not believe that they would let a city flood when the choice is to flood their fields. I believe they would be out there in the rain with their tractors, helping take down levees. Finally, it doesn’t matter what they would do. In an emergency declaration, the folks at the Flood Center have a ton of authority. On our professional judgment, we can decide where to break levees; we can commandeer CalTrans equipment to do that; we can call the sheriff to enforce our decisions (and then fill sandbags). Several years later, we would pay damages.
But here’s what really gets me. The fastest, cheapest way to create another bypass is to buy easements from growers to spread flood flows on their fields. And that pisses me off. I mean, it is the most practical way and I would support it over armoring levees or flooding fields without permission in an emergency. In real life, to get to a practical solution that will ease flooding, I am all for buying easements in Sutter. Inside, however, I am pissed. Why should we pay them?
I am firmly convinced that when devised our system of owning land, we gave away too much. Those growers believe to the depths of their souls that they have a right to keep their land dry in the winter. When we deeded the land to a private owner, the right to shed water from a geographic sink was apparently part of that ownership. That might be fine when there wasn’t a city of millions living downstream, but now that it poses a threat to people’s lives and houses, why do a handful of farmers get to extort a windfall from all of us? Developers firmly believe that ownership of land gives them the right to build houses that will, very predictably, get drowned in floods or burn every ten years. And now, our society has to buy those rights back, pay landowners millions of dollars to prevent practices that would cost us billions. I’m all about Coase, but I hate our starting assumptions. I wish we could start over and design new ideas of land ownership that take the larger community into account.