FEMA: Calif. Levees Worse Than Thought

The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 3, 2007; 10:55 PM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A fast-growing region near the state capital is at greater risk of a potentially catastrophic flood than originally believed, and insurance rates could double for some residents, the government said Wednesday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would redraw flood maps for the area that includes the sprawling Natomas neighborhood. The decision is based on the government's assessment that the levees are substandard and don't meet criteria that they can withstand floods for 100 years.

FEMA's decision for the region could be a prelude to similar designations elsewhere in California's Central Valley, home to some of the state's most explosive suburban growth in recent years. Federal and state governments are taking another look at widespread flood risks in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Natomas basin is a giant sink that is bordered by the Sacramento and American rivers and includes the Arco Arena, home to the NBA's Sacramento Kings. Flood experts say it could be submerged under more than 15 feet of water if the levees failed.

"This is just one more example of how serious the problem is," said Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who has introduced legislation that would make it harder for development in flood plains throughout California.

FEMA's decision means that property owners who have federally backed mortgages will be required to buy federal flood insurance, and insurance rates could double in the basin, said Frank Mansell, a FEMA spokesman. Building restrictions also could be imposed once the new flood maps are adopted in November.

The government's decision highlights the fragility of 1,600 miles of earthen levees built in the 19th century to protect California farmland. Thousands of homes now sit behind many of those levees.

Many residents in Sacramento, Sutter and Yuba counties have been told their homes and businesses do not have the flood protection they thought they had, said Ricardo Pineda, chief of the floodplain management branch at the California Department of Water Resources.

The Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency discovered weaknesses in the levees surrounding Natomas last spring. It has begun a $370 million project to upgrade the system to 200-year flood protection, twice the protection required by FEMA. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last summer withdrew its endorsement of the levees.

© 2007 The Associated Press