Excerpts from Western Water Magazine’s article, “It Can Happen Here: Assessing California’s Flood Risk”

Water Law  

November 2005

Downey Brand water attorney Scott Shapiro, who represents several local flood control agencies, was recently quoted in the November/December 2005 issue of Western Water magazine. The article, “It Can Happen Here: Assessing California's Flood Risk,” featured information on California 's Delta region and compared it to the New Orleans area. Experts were quoted from the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and several local flood control agencies.

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina has forced many in California to take a good hard look at the structure of the Delta levees and how they would hold up should that area experience a large earthquake or flood. Scott Shapiro noted that girding against the flood risk is the state's “largest, looming” problem but “there isn't focus…to solve the problem,” he said. A May 2005 report by ACWA said that the Delta's “long-term viability” as a water supply source is at risk from levee instability and other factors that could “imperil the water supply for much of the state.”

Rapid housing growth is pushing subdivisions closer to areas behind levees that were built to protect farmland. The state Reclamation Board sought to raise public awareness of the issue by questioning development of floodplains; however, many members found themselves abruptly fired by Governor Schwarzenegger in late September 2005. “I think that a majority of that board was simply too focused on trying to prevent new development in areas protected by levees, instead of offering flood control solutions that would simultaneously allow building to continue,” Shapiro said.

Stein Buer, executive director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, said “significant parallels” exist between Sacramento and New Orleans , primarily the reliance on levees to protect lives and property. Both regions are built below sea level and are sinking, and both regions depend upon levees for their continued existence. A major difference, though, is that there is not a major metropolitan area in the middle of the Delta yet.

California's flood control system is of vital importance to the entire state and not just the people living and working closest to the levees. In discussing a solution, Shapiro concluded that rather than halting floodplain development, officials should focus on setting a minimum standard for safety, helping people understand the options and the associated risks, and then offering mechanisms for people to protect themselves, such as flood insurance. “The key, I believe, is determining a state policy on levees and protection,” Shapiro said. “This policy needs to consider the oft-competing goals of protecting the environment, offering housing, and keeping people safe. Once a policy is in place, it offers certainty, and local government and the development community thrive on certainty.”