When the Levee Breaks

Hamilton City leads California in a new approach to managing rivers.
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Jose Puente's boots were on, his slicker ready by the door. It was New Year's Eve, 1994, and rain was drumming hard and fast on the flat, metal roof of the Hamilton City Fire Hall. Across town the Sacramento River was swelling by an inch an hour in the channel that bends around the rural community 90 miles north of California's state capital. Puente, the town's fire chief at the time, had already sent firefighters door-to-door to evacuate the community's nearly 2,000 residents. As midnight approached, he and two volunteers headed out to the J Levee, the only bulwark between the river and Hamilton City.

A few minutes later, Puente stood at the edge of the levee and watched as uprooted trees plummeted down the channel toward Sacramento, and waters raged just a few feet from the top of the barrier. Muddy swirls of water boiled out on the riverside of the 13-foot-high earthen berm. On the "dry" side, slabs of dirt were sloughing off down the face of the barrier onto the water-soaked ground below. By the time he walked the two miles to the north end, water was sloshing over the top. If the J Levee broke, Hamilton City would be in the direct path of the flood.

"We can make a stand here," Puente yelled through the storm. "Get us some sandbags."

With a state crew and local volunteers, he worked into the first hours of 1995, piling one bag on top of another to keep the river from washing his town away. The sandbags held, sparing Hamilton from inundation.

For Puente, now 63, this was among the most frightening of the floods that have threatened Hamilton City since he moved there as a teenager. It wasn't the first time he'd been forced to engage in what he calls "flood fighting," and it wouldn't be the last. Over the past 50 years, Puente has experienced many flood evacuations, sometimes with only a few minutes' notice.

"It can get scary," Puente says, "and it does get old."

Sitting among fields along the west bank of the Sacramento River, Hamilton City has always been vulnerable to floods surging out of California's northern mountain canyons and rushing south through Sacramento and into the Pacific. Before the town was built, the river would swell with winter precipitation, spilling over its banks onto floodplains that absorbed the power of the current and soaked up the overflow. Early in the 20th century, town leaders used local sandy soils to erect the levee, the 10th one in the state classification system and thus designated Levee J. It has remained the only barrier separating the town from the floodwaters for more than 100 years.

The Sacramento River as seen from the old pumping station in Sacramento, California.

The Sacramento River as seen from the old pumping station in Sacramento, California.

The citizens of Hamilton have been fighting for a more permanent promise of safety for decades, and now finally a solution may be in sight. Since the early 1970s, when they began asking the United States Army Corps of Engineers to build a new levee, the residents have complied with numerous information requests, made countless trips to Washington, D.C., and sold thousands of tacos, tamales, and burritos to fund their efforts. "We jumped through all their obstacles and here we are," says Puente, a shy smile deepening the dimples of his round face.

Early last year, construction started on a $90 million project to build seven miles of setback levees and floodplains to protect Hamilton City from floods. Unlike the levee that Puente reinforced with sandbags that night in 1994, the new barriers are much farther from the riverbanks—as far as a mile away in places. In some respects, the concept is absurdly simple: During heavy rains or spring snowmelt, rivers need room to expand; moving levees back from riverbanks provides it. Setback levees not only reduce the need for newer and larger dams and levees, but also restore the natural habitat. When the river floods, it will spill onto 1,400 acres of restored floodplain, which will also serve as haven for red-tailed hawks, Chinook salmon, and 35 other species of wildlife.

For towns and communities throughout California's Central Valley, the Hamilton City project is the new paradigm for managing rivers. Reconnecting the major rivers with their floodplains is now an official policy of the state, replacing a century of levee- and dam-building aimed at confining them: The plan adopted by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board in August of 2017 calls for strategies that reduce flood risks while increasing groundwater recharge, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities over the next 30 years. This new policy comes at a time when climate change promises warmer temperatures for the region, bringing rain over a much larger area, with runoff expected to grow as much as 60 percent over this century, according to the California Department of Water Resources. The plan offers a vision of long-term sustainable water management throughout the Central Valley, says Mike Mierzwa, a civil engineer and the department's chief of flood planning.

All of the $20 billion worth of flood-protection projects identified in the plan offer ways to keep people and communities safe from flooding by giving rivers more room. Embracing this concept as policy makes California a national leader in innovative flood protection.

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For all the lure of its natural resource bounty, California is a place of deceptive extremes. It may not rain for six consecutive months, yet flooding in the Central Valley has been a challenge for Californians since the Gold Rush. When getting rich quick didn't pan out, the prospectors who swarmed down from the mountains to farm were confronted with a winter cycle of torrential storms. "The Sacramento River and its tributaries rose like a vast taking in of breath to flow out over their banks onto the wide valley floor, there to produce terrifying floods," writes Robert Kelley in his classic book, Battling the Inland Sea. During the devastating rains of 1861 and 1862, whole mountainsides, weakened by hydraulic mining, washed into the valley. Unable to contain the heavy runoff, rivers filled and overflowed, drowning downtown Sacramento in seven feet of water.

That flood marked the beginning of the valley's obsession with bringing rivers under control. Farmers began throwing levees up along riverbanks in a haphazard effort to protect their investments. When one farmer put up a new levee, his neighbor would raise his own. This Wild West-era levee arms race later gave way to the era of big dams, built to generate hydroelectricity, store floodwater, and shunt water to thirsty Southern California. Between 1940 and 1978, government agencies constructed large storage reservoirs on every tributary to the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

Sacramento Valley Sugar Company.

Sacramento Valley Sugar Company.

One of the hundreds of locally built berms was the J Levee at Hamilton City. Early in the 20th century, the Sacramento Valley Sugar Company built a company town beside the fields where it was growing sugar beets. Like Central Valley farmers before and since, it did not want to lose its crops to flooding. When the company stopped growing its own sugar beets, it began selling off the land in parcels, each with its own section of levee, each section maintained according to the new owner's means. As a result, the flood protection system lacked coordination. There was never a unified plan and no consistent maintenance or funding.

It was the floods of February of 1986 that sent a signal across the Central Valley that a century of random levee and dam building had not solved the region's flooding problem, says John Cain, director of conservation for flood management at American Rivers, an environmental group. The levees along the American and Sacramento rivers held—barely—but residents along the Yuba River were not so lucky. The flood destroyed 895 homes and damaged 3,000 more.

By then Hamilton City was into its second decade of asking the Army Corps of Engineers to build a new levee. The Corps obliged with a series of desktop studies to evaluate federal interest in a levee. To spend $1 million, for example, they needed to realize $1 million in benefits to the community. Hamilton City is poor even by farm-town standards: The median income is $19,053, and more than 20 percent of residents live in poverty. Three Corps studies came back all stamped "not eligible for federal participation." The floods continued, and so did the flood fights.

If 1986 was a wake-up call, 1997 sounded an alarm that got attention statewide. Just before New Year's Day, rain was falling at elevations as high as 9,000 feet, dumping on an above-normal snowpack. The widespread flooding in the valley below destroyed more than 20 levees. Altogether, eight people were declared dead, and 23,000 homes and 2,000 businesses were damaged or destroyed.

In the wake of the 1997 disaster, government and conservation leaders, landowners, and communities alike realized that simply relying on reservoir storage was no longer an effective means of flood control. They called for studies of non-traditional flood control efforts that went beyond dams and other engineered structures. The shift moved levees, floodplains, and flood bypasses into the spotlight.

The year 1997 was also a critical one for Hamilton City. Under orders from the Office of Emergency Services, Jose Puente had already evacuated the residents by the time Army Corps crews showed up at the J Levee in the dead of night. They built a gravel road safe enough for trucks, then dumped rocks on the top of the levee to raise it, strengthen its weak spots, and save the town. But the Sacramento River stayed high and threatening through June, prolonging both danger and anxiety in Hamilton City.

"Enough was enough,” Puente says. Reeling from the statewide catastrophe, Congress authorized a study asking for ideas involving non-structural solutions as well as traditional engineering. Three segments of the Hamilton City community responded with a proposal that united their separate interests. The Nature Conservancy wanted to restore habitat for native wildlife. The farmers that remained wanted protection for their crops. "The rest of us just wanted relief from floods. It's a scary way to live, always on the brink of evacuation," says Lee Ann Grigsby-Puente, Puente's wife and president of Hamilton City's Reclamation District 2140.

By combining the ecosystem benefits with flood-protection benefits, the project finally met the Army Corps' criteria. No one opposed the setback levee and expanded floodway. "This is one of those rare projects where there is no opposition," says Ryan Luster, a Conservancy project director.

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On a calm autumn afternoon, Jose Puente walks along the J Levee with Lee Ann. The river's azure blue is flecked with the bronze reflections of bank foliage. A young bobcat crosses the levee, scampering over deep cracks that hint at the stress of multiple flood events. Puente points to the half-exposed roots of oaks and sycamores hanging over the river. "When those trees go, the levee goes," he says. His wife rolls her large, dark eyes at the thought of losing the J Levee today.

Losing J Levee, however, is the eventual goal of the setback project. By 2020 the plowed-over area next to the levee will be planted with Oregon ash, valley oak, and willow. Beneath them will be coyote brush, slender sage, and clematis, all native species designed to create a structural mosaic that will attract everything from bald eagles to hummingbirds to deer to valley elderberry longhorn beetles. The new levee will be 150 feet away—giving both the town and the river a little more room to breathe.

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