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Why Hasn’t FEMA Paid for These Damaged Calif. Levees?

The agency has refused to fund a stretch of the Cosumnes River for years, saying the barriers do not meet the criteria for intervention because they were not built to meet the agency’s standards.

A repaired Cosumnes River section of levee before another round of storms battered the area in early January.
Hector Amezcua/TNS
(TNS) - A single Cosumnes River levee sustained $1.5 million in damage after recent winter storms tore out a hole the size of a football field. But the federal government’s emergency management has not yet agreed to give local officials the money to fix that embankment.

The agency has refused to fund this stretch of the river for years, saying the barriers do not meet the criteria for intervention because they were not built to meet the agency’s standards. It regards them as “levee-like” structures, not levees.

The policy has had lasting repercussions in this corner of south Sacramento County, where certain parts of flood infrastructure stay broken for years.

In 2017, for instance, storms battered levees along a 15-mile stretch of the Cosumnes. Local officials asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for help fixing 16 pieces of infrastructure damaged during the floods.

A damage assessment they submitted to FEMA shows that during those storms, water seeped under multiple levees and destabilized them; as the river surged over one levee, it caused 400 feet of erosion; two levees had given way altogether.

They estimated the work would cost $7.9 million.

FEMA refused the request, citing its governing code.

The cost of the 2017 damage far exceeded the budget of the small agency that manages the Cosumnes levees, Reclamation District 800 Cosumnes. It has an annual budget of about $500,000.

This winter, a fresh spate of severe storms broke through some of the same levees that never got fixed in the last round of weather extremes.

“We think it’s worthy of the investment of public money,” said Mark Hite, a trustee of the reclamation district that manages the flood controls around Wilton.

Six years ago, FEMA helped the district with temporary emergency repairs, he said, but not with long-term fixes. It also has received financial help from other government agencies, but never enough to restore the levees to their full strength.

Hite said it was exasperating. “It’s like, ‘We’ll pay you to put the thumb in the dike. We won’t pay you to fix the dike.’”

After the most recent floods, the reclamation district could be looking at tens of millions of dollars in repairs.

Officials from FEMA and the Caliornia Office of Emergency Services toured the watershed by helicopter last week, checking out damage from Cosumnes headwaters in the Sierra Nevada foothills down to the stretch of Highway 99 that flooded earlier this month.

Local officials came away feeling somewhat optimistic they could get more assistance this time.

“We’ve got some really good things happening,” said reclamation district Trustee Leland Schneider.

“It’s not just about a river levee anymore,” he continued. “It’s the effects that happen beyond that and how temporary these repairs are that we’re making to try and hold this thing together. I think everybody’s really thinking about that now.”

How FEMA sees Cosumnes levees

The hangup for years has been that, simply put, the structures on the Cosumnes are not levees by FEMA’s standards, and thus they have not been eligible for funds.

Frank Mansell, a public affairs specialist for FEMA, said levees must meet criteria that “are very specific and very prescribed.”

FEMA defines a levee as “a man-made structure, usually an earthen embankment designed and constructed in accordance with sound engineering practices to contain, control, or divert the flow of water so as to provide protection from temporary flooding.”

The levees must “meet, and continue to meet, minimum design, operation, and maintenance standards that are consistent with the level of protection sought through the comprehensive flood plain management criteria” in the Code of Federal Regulations. This includes meeting a certain height above the river floodline and showing proof of adequate resilience to erosion.

The structures on the Cosumnes do not meet these requirements; to FEMA, they aren’t even really levees. Mansell did say, however, that FEMA has funded elevation projects to raise homes near the river. It’s incumbent on residents to accept the money.

Other agencies can help with some costs

Although FEMA can’t help, other state and federal agencies have stepped in to help south Sacramento County communities near the Cosumnes.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, came to the reclamation district’s aid in 2017, said Greg Norris, the state conservation engineer for the agency. The agency’s mission is to assist farmers and certain other landowners. It works on private property or tribal lands, such as those around the Cosumnes River.

The agency was born out of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, and thereafter, its officials have been “soil erosion experts,” Norris said. Congress authorized it to carry out the Emergency Watershed Protection program, which aims to protect homes and other private property from changes in the watershed, including floods that damage levees.

Through that program, the service must work in coordination with a local government agency that requests aid and takes up a quarter of the costs for its residents — as it did in Wilton in 2017, when it helped fix three Cosumnes levees.

Though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is heavily involved in levee projects in Sacramento, the corps assists only with repairs to projects it has worked on, said Ryan Larson, the chief of levees and channels in the corps’ Sacramento district and one of the district’s levee safety program managers.

These corps projects are approved by Congress. Once a project is completed, the Army Corps can return to fix damage at the request of the local sponsor. The Army Corps was not involved in building the Cosumnes River levees.

In emergencies, the Army Corps can provide the state two forms of assistance: technical advice or direct aid via construction equipment. Larson said Army Corps engineers were asked for and offered advice in Wilton.

When President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in California as a result of this winter’s storms, that opened the door for more federal aid. That does not change FEMA’s stance on what a levee is.

Still, on the state level, California’s Department of Water Resources can pitch in.

“Whether a levee is accredited by FEMA or not, DWR will still provide emergency response assistance if requested,” said Todd Bernardy, the department’s flood projects branch manager.

Although the reclamation district on the Cosumnes can cobble together some reimbursements from the state and the USDA for fixing river infrastructure, there is no stable emergency funding source. In the absence of full funding, residents of Wilton have had to rely on each other.

When the reclamation district asked FEMA for money, it didn’t include the money and time spent by local farmers and farmworkers, many of whom marshal during storms to monitor the floodwaters and sandbag.

Community spirit notwithstanding, the area is still left more vulnerable to severe flooding with every fresh storm.

“Some of these levees need assistance,” Hite said, “and a half-a-million-dollar-a-year budget is woefully inadequate to do the job that needs to be done. That’s it.”

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