|FROM THE CHAIR|
Chairman, California Biodiversity Council
During the 1990’s, California has experienced several flood events of catastrophic proportions. No flood season was more severe than 1997, when swollen rivers broke through levees along the Feather River, Russian River, Cosumnes River, Napa River, and the lower San Joaquin River. An estimated $2 billion in damage resulted from the flooding.
In the aftermath, Governor Wilson established the Flood Emergency Action Team (FEAT) to assess the state emergency response system and recommend long-term actions to help protect Californians and their homes, property, and businesses from future flood disasters. When the final FEAT report was released in May 1997, foremost among its recommendations was a call to reassess California’s flood control system.
Over the past 150 years, much of our effort to manage the flow of our rivers has centered on the construction of levees and dams to capture and hold back high flows. The FEAT report recommended that we consider so-called, non-structural actions, particularly in undeveloped regions of the state.
Clearly, in many urbanized areas of the state, we cannot allow rivers to expand during high flow events. In other areas, however, the hard lessons of trying to constrain natural flows have been taken to heart. Flood control districts, city, county, and environmental groups are seeking new approaches to flood management that combine natural and man-made alternatives. An excellent example of these new methods is on the Napa River, where a coalition of environmental groups, government agencies, and the local community have come together to develop an innovative, “living river” strategy to protect lives and property, while restoring natural values.
Like many other California rivers, the Napa has experienced repeated flooding. Over the past 36 years, damage from floods is estimated to be $542 million. In all, Napa Valley residents have suffered through 27 floods since the mid-1850’s. To address this flooding problem, Congress in 1965 authorized development of a project proposal for flood protection. In 1975, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers submitted its first proposal, using traditional flood control mechanisms of channelization and increased levee heights. The citizens of Napa County, however, voted it and subsequent proposals down, rejecting the “bricks and mortar” approach to flood control. Finally, in 1995, the idea of a non-traditional, environmentally-friendly proposal was born.
I had a unique opportunity in May to visit the Napa River with members of the Friends of the Napa River, Napa County Land Trust, Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Scarcely two weeks previously, the citizens of Napa County had voted to endorse the project and approve a bond issuance to fund the local share of the cost of the project, roughly $110 million over twenty years. The federal government will contribute an equal amount as its share of the cost of the project. The margin of victory amounted to 608 votes out of a total of 27,000 cast, narrowly exceeding the twothirds requirement mandated by Proposition 218.
On that sunny, May afternoon, those who had worked so hard to achieve their goal of a “living river” plan for flood management on the Napa River gathered to celebrate the election victory. Clearly, the cooperation and consensus among these strange bedfellows was instrumental to the passage of the bond measure. Napa County residents, who had observed years of inaction as the result of disagreement, took note when the long feuding entities lined up squarely behind the “living river” proposal.
The Napa River project engenders such strong support largely because it addresses multiple interests and goals in a realistic manner. The project does not rely on any single approach, such as raising levees or moving all structures out of harm’s way, but combines multiple strategies in a way that makes optimal use of engineering and ecology. In touring the stretch of the Napa River from the heart of the city of Napa south to Highway 29, it is evident that the Napa project will provide flood protection while restoring important ecosystems. Napa’s toolbox is quite impressive: Levees are to be set-back to allow the floodplain to regenerate and the river to spread during floods; a flood bypass is to be constructed to carry water across the oxbow portion of the Napa River that loops through the downtown; bridges will be replaced or raised; and new levees and dikes constructed.
Implementation of the Napa River Flood Protection Project will take place over the next five to ten years. During that period, this effort—an experiment in many respects—will reflect an approach that for much of California makes common, economic, and ecological sense. Similarly situated areas of California and the nation will be watching Napa for evidence that the presumed advantages of integrated flood management can be achieved in practice. We have much to learn from this project and I look forward to seeing the Napa River “pave the way” to a future in which flood management and ecosystem protection can co-exist in other river settings.