Smarter Flood Management in California’s Central Valley

Feather River, CA | Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority

Feather River, CA | Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority

American Rivers is spearheading an effort to improve the safety and sustainability, while increasing the recreational, environmental, and community benefits, of a proposed levee modification project on the Feather River, CA.

The Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency (SBFCA) released a draft Environmental Impact Statement in January, outlining the potential impacts of the proposed Feather River West Levee Improvement Project (FRWLP).

American Rivers conducted a thorough review of the document, and found that, among many other issues, the project failed to implement the guiding principles of the recently released Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. Principally, the FRWLP failed to properly consider multi-benefit alternatives like setback levees that are highly touted as the way of the future for Central Valley flood management.

Setback levees are, as the name implies, set further back from the river than existing levees. This increases the size of the floodplain, providing habitat and environmental benefits, while giving the river more room to safely accommodate floods. This greater area greatly reduces flood risk by lowering peak flood flow height and the significantly reducing the chance of levee-overtopping and subsequent, catastrophic failure.

Setback levees, though often initially more costly than fix-in-place options, are the smart investment for the future because they create multiple benefits for recreation, water quality, and fish and wildlife.

The FRWLP is the first major flood control project since finalization of the new Central Valley Flood Protection plan. We felt that ignoring multi-benefit approaches, while furthering the use of antiquated fix-in-place levee strategies, literally sets a dangerous precedent for flood management. In response, American Rivers gathered the support of twelve other organizations in a formal comment letter to SBFCA, advising the project managers of our points of disagreement with the project, and providing suggestions for its improvement.

SBFCA hopes to break ground on the project this summer, and feared that the opposition of our combined organizations could greatly delay project construction. Though garnishing some media attention, no “shots” were fired as might have been suggested- the process moved forward in a cooperative and amenable fashion. After several rounds of negotiations, American Rivers has established an official Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the partnering NGOs and SBFCA.

In return for support of the Feather River West Levee Improvement Project by the NGOs, SBFCA has agreed to pursue funding to implement multi-benefit flood management practices for portions of the FRWLP, and to advocate for increased funding toward such projects in the future. SBFCA agreed to implement, where financially feasible, new segments of setback levees, multi-benefit projects in the Oroville Wildlife Area, Abbott Lake, and other areas, evaluation of improved public river access, floodplain habitat restoration, and other environmental restoration projects.

The managers committed to a long-term partnership with American Rivers and other NGOs who want to join the MOU to promote future multi-benefit projects, and locate the funding necessary for their implementation.

American Rivers looks forward to being a part of the FRWLP as it develops, and believe our partnership with SBFCA is a critical step in the right direction toward achieving safer, sustainable, and environmentally-friendly flood protection for both the Feather River and the greater Central Valley.

  • Is your local river constricted by artificial levees? Is there sufficient open space that would allow for the construction of setback levees to decrease the risk of levee failure, increase wildlife habitat, and improve recreation quality and opportunities? Let us know how your local river is managing floods on the American Rivers’ Facebook page.