Restoring Safe and Healthy Rivers to California’s Central Valley


san joaquin wetlandsFriday, June 29th was a momentous day for flood management both nationally and in California. Congress reformed the National Flood Insurance Program, and California’s Central Valley Flood Protection Board (CVFPB) adopted a comprehensive flood plan that will restore safe and healthy rivers to the Central Valley.

Despite several large flood control dams and over 1,000 miles of levees, flood risk in the Central Valley is among the highest in the nation and growing. Aging levees “protect” $70 billion of urban infrastructure and over one million people, and the risk of catastrophic flooding is growing. Over the last decade, tens of thousands of homes have been permitted or constructed on floodplains behind levees. When the levees fail, not if, large residential neighborhoods will be flooded to depths of ten feet or more.

Dams, levees, and development have devastated the natural environment of the Central Valley. Only 160 years ago, vast wetlands and riparian forests across the valley supported grizzly bear, herds of tule elk, and millions of waterfowl and migratory fish such salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon. Today, 95% of natural wetlands and riparian habitat has been lost, and the salmon runs are on the verge of extinction.

American Rivers’ vision for safe and healthy rivers is founded on the three simple tenets:

  1. Protecting communities from flooding is, and must be, the number one flood management priority;
  2. Giving rivers more room to safely accommodate floods is the best way to keep communities safe; and
  3. Giving rivers more room also creates opportunities for providing parks, recreation, clean water, and habitat for fish and wildlife.

These simple truths prevailed.  Expanding floodways on the lower Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers is now the cornerstone of California’s flood management plan for the Central Valley.  The new floodways will not only lower flood stages by 2-3 feet near urban areas, but will also create thousands of acres of floodplain habitat for fish, birds, and other wildlife.  

The plan, however, is only first step toward restoring safer, healthier rivers in the Central Valley. Implementation of the plan will require $17 billion dollars over the next two to three decades.