After deluge, will flood zone rebuild?

January 15, 1995|By New York Times News Service

RIO LINDA, Calif. -- With more than half of California declared a disaster area after the punch of a 10-day storm, water experts are questioning why this state remains stuck in a predictable cycle: devastation in a flood area, followed by federal relief, then rebuilding in the same places.

Yesterday, the storms for the most part started to recede after causing 11 deaths and about $300 million in damage.

It is no surprise to anyone who has lived in Northern California that the flat land near the Sacramento River and its tributaries has flooded once again.

The bigger surprise, say some water experts, is that new housing developments continue to rise in the flood zone and that the federal government continues to indirectly encourage building there.

Some of the worst flooding was here in Rio Linda, a community just north of Sacramento, where a tiny channel called Dry Creek swelled into a lake, damaging hundreds of houses.

"Every time they build another home up north of here, the water comes down here on top of us," said Tom Ray, manager of the water district in Rio Linda.

Parts of Rio Linda and other areas around the Sacramento River have flooded so often over the past century -- each time leading to more costly flood-control measures financed by taxpayers -- that Mr. Ray has now reached a somewhat radical conclusion for a water district manager.

"The only way you can get these people out of the flood zone is to buy them out," he said.

"For the taxpayers, that would be the best deal."

That is the same conclusion reached last year by a panel put together after the Mississippi River floods of 1993, the worst in a century.

The Sacramento River system is the most heavily engineered in America, except for the Mississippi. For more than a century, federal policy has been to build up a series of dams and levees, intended to keep the water from spilling over into its natural flood plain.

But on the Mississippi, much of that policy was declared a failure after the 1993 flood.

The river has since been given room to reclaim some of its natural channel, about 35,000 acres, and more than 7,000 people have been moved, permanently, to higher ground.

California, by contrast, has continued in the opposite direction, water experts say.

The Sacramento is one of the biggest beneficiaries of 70 years of federal dam and levee-building, at a cost of $25 billion nationwide.

Despite the huge federal investment, per-capita flood losses, adjusted for inflation, have more than doubled since 1951, studies have shown, and much of that loss has been in California.

The Mississippi flood left a relief and cleanup bill of $6 billion, hydrologists and flood-control specialists say.

A new national flood policy, less reliant on dams and levees that channel water into fast-moving drainage systems was proposed last year as part of a study on the Mississippi by a special committee led by Brig. Gen. Gerald E. Galloway, an Army engineer.

Federal flood-control efforts would cost less and be more effective if they tried to move people out of risky low-lying areas and allowed more water to drain off into natural reservoirs of flat, spongy land, the committee reported.

The suggested changes were sent to the White House more than seven months ago but have yet to be acted on. A bill that would have incorporated many of the changes was blocked by Republican-led resistance in the Senate last summer.

Though many Republicans say that they favor putting more stringent requirements on federal largess to states prone to flooding, last year's bill was caught up in a Republican strategy that blocked almost all Democratic-supported legislation late in the session.

In addition, property-rights advocates opposed the bill, saying that any measures to protect wetlands in general will lead to more regulations and take more farm land out of cultivation.

Since the Mississippi disaster, there have been major floods in Texas, Georgia and California.

"Some of the most dramatic examples of what was wrong with American flood policy can now be seen here in California this week," said Dr. Philip B. Williams, a California hydrologist who advises cities on flood-control matters.

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