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California Levees: The Bureaucratic Politics of Risk

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 24 August 2012

Interesting news today about the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to declare that many of the levees in the Sacramento region fail to meet maintenance standards. As a result, the Army Corp may decertify the levees as meeting the 100-year flood protection standards, forcing many homeowners in the area to purchase expensive flood insurance ($1200 per year!) and limiting federal funding for rebuilding in the wake of a flood. Not only does this case have important implications for Sacramento, which has one of the highest flood risks in the country, but it also illustrates a number of recurring issues in the bureaucratic politics of risk with respect to flood management.

This latest announcement comes in the wake of a ongoing controversy sparked by Hurricane Katrina, where the Corps has pressured California to remove all trees on levees despite helping to plant those trees itself, and the widely supported idea that riparian vegetation can help fisheries by reducing water temperature. The push for national standards makes it difficult to reflect local circumstances in how policies are implemented, which is the classic tension between centralization and decentralization.

In this particular case of failed maintenance standards, a large part of the problem is that urban development has occured right next to or even on the levees. This is what economists call moral hazard--the local governments, developers, and homeowners are not taking into account the costs of flooding because they believe the federal government will take care of things. In my opinion, this is one of the most foolish decisions made by development interests throughout the United States, and I do agree that the Corps should take a strong stance on trying to prevent development in obvious floodplains. However, it appears the agency is being fairly hypocritical in declaring the levees unsafe now (this is a debateable point; I'm sure the Corps would have a different opinion...), after allowing this pattern of development to occur in the past. The development has to be prevented in the first place, and the window has closed for the wise decision.

Another interesting facet to this debate is the role of the recently passed Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. According to the Corps' letter to the Central Valley Flood Protection Board , one reason for the decertification is that the Flood Plan does not adequately describe how the levees will be brought into compliance. The details are too vague according to the Corps. The Flood Plan process used a "collaborative" approach to decision-making, and interestingly the Corps made a 2-year agreement with California to delay the non-compliance decision in order to allow the Flood Plan process to move forward. But during the planning, the Corps had notified California that they thought the draft plan would not meet the safety standards.

The question now is how California will respond in the update of the plan, in particular providing more concrete details about how the safety standards will be met, which will cost a lot of money. In a budget-strapped state, turning planning promises into on-the-ground environmental improvements is always difficult. But the costs of flood management will eventually be paid, one way or the other, either before or after a major flood. Of course, the Dutch are probably having a laugh about this, sitting behind their 1 in 10,000 year flood protection levees(the link has a nice report comparing countries)!