Design effort turns to Southport levees

Map of West Sacramento's levee system

 Project will probably mean purchase of some private property near Sacramento River

NEWS-LEDGER – OCT 12, 2011

As West Sacramento flood control officials turn their attention to the levees in Southport along the river, they expect to have to buy some land – and perhaps some houses – from some local owners. The exact plans, costs and impacts are still being determined.

The West Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (WSAFCA) has already contacted landowners who might be affected, but no purchase offers have been made, said Michael Bessette, the city’s flood control manager.

West Sacramento has formed WSAFCA along with two local reclamation districts, numbers 537 and 900.  The agency’s members work with the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain the levees that keep water out of West Sacramento – with good success, but with growing concerns after the flood disasters seen in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Here, local levees protect 47,000 citizens and $3 billion of property value, according to the City of West Sacramento.

  In Southport, the city and WSAFCA are turning their attention to six miles of the “Sacramento River South Levee,” which reaches from the barge canal crossing to a connecting east-west levee south of Gregory Avenue. That’s where the agency is designing one of its “early implementation projects” (EIPs) for levee improvement.

“WSAFCA is analyzing the six-mile levee reach in Southport all along the Sacramento River,” Bessette told the News-Ledger on Monday. “There may be impacts for local homes that are built up against the levee. We’ve had several meetings with property owners.”

He estimated that “about 10 to 15” property owners could be asked to sell land to the project to use for levees, or to make the construction projects easier.

“It could be more or less,” he added. “If we can’t improve a levee in some manner without impacting homes, we may look at different options.”

Some of those alternatives include repairing the existing levees, widening the existing levees, or building a new “setback” levee. These options will be looked at on a location-by-location basis along the six-mile stretch, partly taking into account the reaction from affected landowners.

Ideally, said Bessette, “setback” levees would be a great choice. By building a new levee several hundred feet inland from the river’s edge, the levees wouldn’t suffer from the daily erosion of the river’s current.

“It’s very costly to do all those erosion repairs,” said Bessette.

But “set back” levees would require more land, and possibly the purchase of some private homes. So other options are also being factored in, while WSAFCA talks to the landowners.

What if someone’s home is in the way, and the owner doesn’t want to sell?

The flood agency does have the powers of “eminent domain,” said Bessette, but this power of forcing someone to sell at an appraised value would only be used as a  last resort.
“That’s the last piece of the puzzle,” he said. “(First), an offer is made to a property owner. It goes back and forth, and the property owner can request their own appraisal, which WSAFCA will pay for.”

If the two sides can’t agree on a price, and WSAFCA insists on using eminent domain to buy it, the agency can force the sale. But if the landowner still isn’t happy, he or she can take the agency to court and try to get an award of additional damages. So the process can get messy and expensive for the government agency involved, as well as for the property owner.

The agency expects to begin construction on the Southport levees in summer of 2013.
The Southport levee project would be added to a couple of other improvement projects already launched. Construction work already started at levees near the Rivers subdivision and the CHP academy in the city’s north area, also part of the “early implementation” phase of levee upgrades.

The science of levee construction has changed in recent years – especially after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina and Gulf Coast flooding. The experiences there created new concerns about dangers from seepage, stability and erosion in West Sacramento and Sacramento-area levees.

The city estimates that “needed” flood improvements will cost about $460 million, of which local taxpayers will pay at least 10 percent. Voters have already approved a temporary sales tax increase, an average of $150 in new property taxes per house, and new development fees to meet that “local share.”

The West Sacramento City Council is aiming for a “200 year” level of flood protection – meaning that there is a one-in-200 chance of a flood disaster in any given year.

What’s the protection level now?

Bessette declined to hazard a guess, saying that there are two many different ways of measuring the levees’ protection.
“But I’d say it’s pretty good,” he told the News-Ledger. “We’ve finished up a couple of projects this year – we’ve targeted the worst areas first, and we’re continuing to monitor the levees. I’d say our levees are in as good shape as they’ve ever been, and we’re continuing to work on them.”

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