Federal levee study shows risks worse than thought for flood-prone states such as California

Sunday, February 4th 2007, 2:29 pm
By: News On 6

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Leaving the congestion and sky-high housing prices of the San Francisco Bay area for a quiet retirement near the state capital seemed like a no-lose idea to Achilles Melendres.

So he bought a two-story home in a rapidly growing neighborhood north of downtown Sacramento last year. He's now wondering if he made the right decision.

Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency withdrew its certification for the levees that are designed to keep the Sacramento River within its banks as it winds past the sprawling neighborhood Melendres calls home.

The levees are weaker than expected, leaving thousands of homeowners at risk of a catastrophic flood that could submerge a vast swath of former farmland in 20 feet of water.

``The reason I left the Bay area is because of the earthquake insurance. Now I've traded it for another problem,'' said Melendres, 59.

Like other states, California began an intensive review of its flooding risk after the devastation wrought along the Gulf Coast in 2005 by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A report released this past week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that 27 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have substandard levees. The assessment identified 122 poorly maintained levees. California, the country's most populous state, had nearly a quarter of the problem levees _ 37 segments. Washington state followed with 19 suspect levees.

Many of California's levees were built decades ago by farmers and are riddled with rodent holes and weakened by overgrowth. In most cases, the local water and farming districts that are supposed to maintain them have little if any money to make repairs.

The threat of flooding is greatest in Sacramento, which sits at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. About 300,000 people live in the rivers' flood plains.

``Levees are spectacularly unreliable partners in flood management,'' said Jeffrey Mount, a professor of geology and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. ``We designed a flood-control system for Sacramento in the early 20th century when we lived in a kinder, gentler climate. We got the design wrong.''

A year ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for the state's levee system, ordering urgent repairs to the 33 most critical spots at a cost of $175 million. California voters last November approved a $4.1 billion flood-control bond. Much of that will go toward strengthening the weakest sections of the state's 14,000 levees.

In Washington's King County, $179 million to $335 million is needed over the next decade to cover repairs and maintenance to some 500 levees, officials say.

``We've already identified a plan to fix them. What we need now is the money,'' said Mark Isaacson, director of the King County Water and Land Resources Agency.