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Dispatch: Agriculture, Flood Management, and Cooperation

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 09 November 2010

I went on a field trip today as part of the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute's "National Symposium on Food and Sustainability." I was in a group focused on "resiliency", and we were paired with three general managers from local reclamation districts. Reclamation Districts are relatively unknown to most people, but they are local special district governments responsible for flood control, drainage, and irrigation. They have a long history of providing local public goods to agricultural landowners in California, with many of them dating back to the late 19th century.

The main topic of the day was how agriculture fits into regional flood management. The Reclamation Districts have the primary responsiblity for levee maintenance and also other flood management decisions. Among many policy processes, they are currently involved in the Central Valley Flood Management Planning(http://www.water.ca.gov/cvfmp/). Within this, many of the local agencies in the Sacramento River Valley have formed a regional working group to coordinate decision-making and political effort. There are some really classic cooperation problems here, nested within the federalist structure and also considering the local "ecology of policy games". These issues would make a fantastic policy study, and while there is no way I can offer any policy recommendations after such a short exposure, among the key policy issues that need to addressed are the following:

1. Regional cooperation involves balancing the risk reduction benefits of flood protection and the costs of providing flood protection in a way that the costs and benefits are shared among stakeholders. But the costs and benefits are distributed asymetrically across space and land-use type, so it is not an easy task to figure out the right scheme of cooperation. One of the interesting things they have done is agree to provide 100-year flood protection to rural areas and 200-year flood protection to more economically valuable urban areas. But in return for the extra flood protection money going to urban areas, the rural agricultural areas want help in development and flood recovery.

2. Flood protection is nested within a very broad ecology of water management games. One of the reclamation district managers said there might be as many as 140 policy processes going on in the Sac Valley and around the CA Delta. How do you choose? You participate in the ones that affect your interests the most, and that will have the largest influence on water policy. Flood management also has to deal with policy processes that involve other ecosystem services, such as habitat. There is often a direct conflict between flood management activities that reduce risk and the habitat requirements for endangered species. For example, the Army Corp is currently trying to mandate removing riparian woody vegetation (e.g.; trees) from all levees to reduce the chance of failure. But removing trees can heat up water, which is bad for salmon and steelhead.

3. The classic tension between centralization and decentralization is very clear in flood management. The Army Corp and the State of California tend to focus on uniform rules about levee design and management that are based on experiences in the Midwest and Southeast but might not work well for California. The Army Corp has become particularly consistent after the "black eye" of Hurricane Katrina. But the local reclamation districts believe that meeting the requirements of the Army Corp, for example on vegetation management, will divert effort from local priorities likely to have a larger risk reduction benefits such as fixing seepage points on levees.

4. It was hypothesized that local government agencies like reclamation districts may have a better adaptive capacity than state and federal governments--they are more resilient if you wish. They can react and make decisions with fewer procedural constraints, and also can do more work per dollar of investment. They can make decisions that are more customized to local conditions. This could be a big advantage in the case of climate change, because they can adapt to any changing climate conditions fast enough to avoid serious problems. Of course there are counter hypotheses. For example, even if they can use money more efficiently, they don't have a lot of money to start with relative to the state and Fed government and so have a limited total capacity.

5. Climate change and decision-making under uncertainty are going to be a major challenge. They are not worried too much about climate change; they are currently treating it just like normal interannual variation in precipitation and snowmelt that contributes to floods. They have seen some increase in the intensity of floods that might be a signal of climate change. But they are uncertain about any climate change predictions with respect to rainfall and snow, so they are not currently integrating adaptation into to their planning. This might not be universal across districts, but it is definitely an issue that needs further exploration. In fact, they are heavily focused on a 1957 planning document about needed flood control investments in the Central Valley and an important question is how the 1957 plans will change to reflect new --and uncertain--economic, social, and environmental realities.

These are just some of the big issues and I've greatly oversimplified without providing answers to these challenges. There are other issues that need to be considered and my list of big issues is probably not the same as other participants, for example Jonathon London from the Center for Regional Change. But the best thing about the field trip was that I learned a huge amount, and I greatly thank these very busy and expert reclamation district managers for taking a whole day to visit with our small group. I promise that my students will reap the benefits of the experience in years to come.