Public Involvement in a Better Plan: Letter to the Central Valley Flood Protection Board

For better or worse, in the United States and in Calfornia especially, we have a strong element of public involvement in most planning processes.  Better because it forces transparency, allows voices to be heard, and as Americans we really can have some influence in shaping our future.  Worse because… all of those voices have different perspectives and priorities (often conflicting)– and as a result, the process can take ages.

No where has this been more prevalent over the last 30 years than in California, amidst the struggle to balance competing needs with constrained budgets in the Central Valley, the Delta, and with respect to any topic related to water.  Todays’ post briefly discusses the most recent plan in the headlines and how one group has united behind common goals and interests to improve a policy that will eventually affect multiple parties including all California taxpayers.

The Central Valley Flood Protection Plan.

California has embarked upon large scale system-wide flood risk reduction projects and policies with California Department of Water Resources‘s recently released Draft of the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. The Central Valley Flood Protection Board must adopt (or reject) the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan (CVFPP) by June of this year  and the public has again an opportunity to play a large role. The Flood Protection Board will both receive recommendations on the plan and will make suggestions to the Department of Water Resources to amend the plan.


The original flood management system in the Central Valley was built over a hundred years ago, much of it created property by property, when at that time it protected mostly agriculture. (For a good history, read Battling the Inland Sea, Kelley 1998). Over the years however, much of the infrastructure has been degraded, levees have failed, and consequences of failure have changed. Today, the Central Valley’s flood management system protects dense urban areas including those of political importance like the capitol city of Sacramento–also critical infrastructure, unique ecosystems, and a valuable fresh water supply.  The state of California recognized the need to improve the system in 2008 and passed legislation (SB 5) to create a system-wide plan (the CVFPP) to address deficiencies in the Central Valley Flood Management system where failure could mean billions in damages for all Californian taxpayers.

To learn more about the plan and process, click here.

The overarching goal of the CVFPP is to “Improve Flood Risk Management.”

Supporting goals are to improve operations and maintenance, promote ecosystem function, improve institutional support, promote multi-benefit projects (ecosystem, water supply, etc).  The billion (5 billion in fact) dollar question lies in how?

How to manage competing interests?

Public Safety and Ecosystem Function (and agriculture and water supply) are not necessarily in conflict, despite that it has appeared that way in the past. A robust flood management approach can reduce flood risk and enhance ecosystems by incorporating both technical and non-technical measures.  Examples of successful projects can be seen in California where the Yolo Bypass has protected Sacramento from flooding since 1933, and in the Netherlands where the burgeoning Ruimte voor de Rivier programme promises to reduce water surface elevations and improve “spatial quality” on a system wide basis.  Other areas in Europe are following suit (Adaptive Land use for Flood Alleviation project).

Weir gates at Hondsbroeksche Pleij flood bypass, January 2012: the first completed Room or River project in the NL . Image credit: Almar Joling

The Department of Water Resources has made a good start in this direction as the first draft of the Plan is not limited to a levees-only approach, and it tries to appease the sum rather than the parts. But I suspect that as public comments begin to arrive to the Flood Board, we will likely see requests  to protect individual interests–requests that miss out on the sense of collective good– something that is really needed if California wants to reduce risk on a system-wide basis as opposed to piecemeal.

I came across this  letter (below)  and I’ve pasted it as an example of how 16 conservation local and national conservation  groups collaborated to provide the Flood Protection Board with clear, implementable recommendations for the Plan to reduce risk and achieve the plan’s stated goals. For full text of the letter, click here:  Conservation Community Letter on Flood Plan 2-15-12  The Board will have a public hearing on February 24 in Sacramento.

The conservation groups identify six areas for improving the plan that integrate instead of separate multiple interests:

  1. Maximize the use of cost-effective and multi-benefit flood management tools such as flood bypasses, setback levees, and transitory storage on floodplains.Fremont Weir (image credit: Katie Jagt)
  2. Specify an overarching strategy with measurable objectives for incorporating ecosystem function.
  3. Clearly state how the flood plan will be integrated with related state and federal restoration efforts within the state flood control planning area.
  1. Develop a more explicit climate change adaptation strategy to minimize projected impacts on flood risk, ecosystems, and water supply reliability.
  2. Explicitly integrate and balance flood management and water supply objectives.
  3. Provide specific guidance to enable local planning.

Signed by: American RiversCalifornia Trout,  National Wildlife Federation California Waterfowl Association,  River Partners,  Environmental Defense FundNatural Resources Defense Council,  Sacramento River Preservation Trust , TheNatureConservancy FriendsoftheRiver ,  PlanningandConservationLeague,  The Bay Institute,  Trout Unlimited,  Tuolumne River Trust PRBO ConservationScience DefendersofWildlife 

What do you think?

(See below for no-explanation-needed-image of “Why floodplains are good for fish”). This  is a fun photo and one that tends to resurface time and again)


About wateraway

Jessica Ludy is an independent researcher with Unesco-IHE, a Water Resources Planner with ARCADIS, and a Fulbright Scholar in Flood Risk Management at Delft Technical University, the Netherlands. She was formerly the Associate Director of Flood Management at American Rivers in Berkeley, California, where she worked to promote sustainable flood management strategies in regional, and state, and federal agencies. Jessica has also been a lecturer and researcher at UC Berkeley in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning. Jessica grew up on the Great Lakes in Michigan, earned a BSc at the University of Vermont in Environmental Science, and an MSc in Environmental Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. This website is not affiliated with the Fulbright commission, ARCADIS, TU-Delft, Unesco-IHE, or American Rivers.
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2 Responses to Public Involvement in a Better Plan: Letter to the Central Valley Flood Protection Board

  1. Pingback: » A Few Good Reads (2/20/12): Salmon and California Flood Protection Hydraulically Inclined

  2. Pingback: » Moving in the Right Direction: The 2012 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan Public Draft Hydraulically Inclined

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