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New Homeowners Rolling the Dice on State's Rivers

Officials say old Central Valley levees could fail, causing heavy flooding. The governor replaced outspoken regulators.

November 20, 2005|Tim Reiterman and Virginia Ellis | Times Staff Writers

LATHROP, Calif. — On one side, the murky San Joaquin River slides past a tree-shaded bank. On the other, the red clock tower of the newly erected City Hall rises among hundreds of tract homes under construction.

All that separates the river from its new neighbors in the Mossdale Landing subdivision is a weedy earthen levee that sprang leaks in the state's 1997 floods, blanketing the area with water. Despite repairs, government officials say residents stand a 1 in 4 chance of new flooding in the next 30 years.

The area is one of many throughout the Central Valley where tens of thousands of homes and businesses are being built or planned near an aged and neglected levee network stretching 250 miles from Butte County to Fresno County.

The flood control system is supposed to protect residents, farmland and water supplies for millions of Southern Californians, but officials acknowledge that it is an almost 6,000-mile hodgepodge of publicly and privately owned levees of varying condition.

A state Department of Water Resources report in January warned that most of the valley's development is occurring on land susceptible to flooding and that land-use decisions are sometimes based on outdated or inaccurate information about the flood threat.

"The next major flood could easily overwhelm the state's deteriorating ... flood protection system and have catastrophic consequences," the report said.

Ricardo Pineda, chief of the water department's floodplain management branch, said that the levees at Mossdale Landing need to be reevaluated and that homeowners should buy flood insurance.

"Those levees to me are very scary," he said.

Although the courts have found the state liable for damage from levee failures, state and federal agencies often have little or no authority over local decisions to build behind the levees.

The state's levee safety agency, the Reclamation Board, did not aggressively discourage development until recent years. But several weeks ago, its increasingly outspoken members were replaced by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The valley's levee system is "under-designed and it's broken, and you're asking it to support thousands and thousands of new homes in the flood plain," said Jeffrey Mount, UC Davis geology department chairman and one of the ousted board members. "That's a prescription for disaster."

To adequately protect homes and crops, state water officials say, the levee system needs several billion dollars in overdue maintenance and capital improvements.

Some poorly designed levees are little more than piles of dirt and may require reconstruction. Levees with more structural integrity still need strengthening or repairs because of damage from erosion, burrowing rodents and under-seepage, the officials say. Many levees need to be made taller to handle anticipated floods.

Meanwhile, cities and counties, hungry for development that improves the tax base, have sometimes allowed construction before levees are fixed or upgraded. Builders are drawn to the flood-prone areas because they are relatively inexpensive and have waterfront appeal.

Even though home builders provide buyers with flood disclosure statements warning of the possibility of levee failures, not all new residents read them closely, or at all.

Flooding was the last thing on the mind of real estate loan officer Errol Riego earlier this month when he, his wife and their two children moved into a $700,000 home in Mossdale Landing that he figures was half the price of a comparable one in the Bay Area.

Riego did not know about the past flooding. In the excitement of becoming a homeowner for the first time, he said, he did not pay much attention to the builder's flood disclosure statement.

Would it have mattered?

"No, not at all," he said.

On the other hand, quarry mechanic Max Duncan, who bought his house five months ago, said he has been concerned about flooding since Hurricane Katrina.

"If it rains lots," he said, "I'm going to go look at the levee."

Much of the valley's new construction is behind levees designed at least half a century ago to protect crops, not subdivisions. Some projects are below sea level. Some areas have been flooded in the past.

Yet the federal government does not always categorize them as flood plains where homeowners are required to carry flood insurance.

The seven-member Reclamation Board's traditional role was protecting farmland from flooding. The board also required developers to get permits if construction necessitated alterations to levees. But the tiny agency only sporadically exercised its authority to comment on the safety of planned development behind levees.

During the last few years, however, the board has pushed for changes in some projects near levees, questioning the adequacy of levees and urging developers to upgrade them before building homes. In Yuba County, the board persuaded officials to slow down home construction in a previously flooded area while levees were improved.

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