After more than a century of building levees higher to hold back its rivers, California took another step Friday toward a flood-control policy that aims to give raging rivers more room to spread out instead.
The plan, adopted by the flood-control board for the Central Valley, a 500-mile swathe from Mount Shasta to Bakersfield that includes the state’s two largest rivers and the United States’ richest agricultural region, emphasizes flood plains, wetlands and river bypasses as well as levees.
Backers say the changing strategy will better handle the rising seas and heavier rain of climate change, which is projected to send two-thirds more water thundering down the Central Valley’s San Joaquin River at times of flooding.
The idea: “Spread it out, slow it down, sink it in, give the river more room,” said Kris Tjernell, special assistant for water policy at California’s Natural Resources Agency.
Handled right, the effort will allow farmers and wildlife – including native species harmed by the decades of concrete-heavy flood-control projects – to make maximum use of the rivers and adjoining lands as well, supporters say.
They point to Northern California’s Yolo Bypass, which this winter again protected California’s capital, Sacramento, from near-record rains. Wetlands and flood plains in the area allow rice farmers, migratory birds and baby salmon all to thrive there.
For farmers, the plan offers help moving to crops more suitable to seasonally flooded lands along rivers, as well as payments for lending land to flood control and habitat support.
Farmers, environmental leaders and sporting and fishing groups joined in praising the plan Friday, a rarity in California’s fierce water politics. “Savor the moment,” Justin Fredrickson of the California Farm Bureau joked to the flood board.
Five years in negotiation, the flood proposal moves away from “two overarching themes in the history of our flood management. One has been build the levees bigger and get the water out” to the ocean. “Another theme has been don’t talk to each other,” said Rene Henery, state science director for the Trout Unlimited conservation organization.
California’s Central Valley before Western settlement annually transformed into an inland sea in the rainy season. Settlers transformed the valley, building levees along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to create land for farm fields and cities.
The state doesn’t have the funding for the nearly $20 billion in projects envisioned by the plan, including thousands of acres of proposed new wetlands along the San Joaquin. But the outline is meant to guide work and funding, including $89 million the state announced for Central Valley wetlands earlier this week.
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