Corps quickens flood-studies, starts with Sutter Basin Project

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sacramento District
Story by Todd Plain

Date: 10.06.2011
Posted: 10.06.2011 17:13
News ID: 78146
Corps quickens flood-studies, starts with Sutter Basin Project

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The District’s Sutter Basin Project is testing a national pilot program to move more quickly from studying a flooding problem to fixing it.

It’s been 56 years since the Sutter Basin, an area of low land located in the heart of California’s Central Valley, was devastated by a catastrophic flood.

Yuba City was totally inundated when its levees failed, killing 37, injuring 2,884 and causing damage of $327 million in current estimates. Those levees were originally constructed by farmers trying to protect their property, farms and crops—not licensed engineers.

The area continues to be at risk thanks to multiple sources of potential high waters, including the Feather River, Sutter Bypass, Cherokee Canal, Wadsworth Canal and local tributaries, which could potentially inundate areas with 20 feet of water. As many as 80,000 residents and $6.5 billion of critical infrastructure, including major highways, hospitals and power facilities, lie within the 285 square mile study-area east of the Sutter Buttes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District’s Sutter Basin Project is considering ways to safely channel and manage those high waters as a system and reduce the flood risk to communities in the region.

“Certain areas of the basin are at more risk to flooding than others, that’s one reason we are looking at the Sutter Basin area and how it relates to flood risk management as a system,” said project manager Laura Whitney. “The Corps’ project aims to restore the basin’s natural flood plain, the natural habitat and increase public recreational opportunities in the project area.”

The Corps and its partners—Central Valley Flood Protection Board, California Department of Water Resources and Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency—have already done a lot of flood risk reduction work in and around the Sutter Basin, such as dams, bypasses and levee construction.

Even with those improvements, more must be considered for this system-wide approach to flood risk management.

The Corps and its partners must study where the area’s excess water, including flows from upstream dams, should go and what current and future construction impacts exist downstream. They must also account for property rights, historical preservation, climate change impacts and a myriad of environmental concerns. Additionally, they will create detailed scenarios of what might happen in the area if nothing more is built.

Those are but a few of the complex issues that must be considered on larger, multiple-source flooding problems like the ones in the Sutter Basin.

The Corps’ flood risk management study phase is very complex and could easily take many years to complete; something that Corps leadership desperately wants to change.

To address the area’s flooding problems faster, Maj. Gen. William Grisoli, deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations for the Corps, announced in February the arrival of a national pilot program for the Sutter Basin Project’s study phase.

The program is intended to test and confirm ideas for shortening the Corps’ planning study process as part of a broader Corps effort to move more quickly from studying a problem to fixing it.

“Essentially, we are pursuing a new methodology,” said Whitney. “The new methodology allows the team to use more of a broad-brush analysis early on in the process that moves toward a more detailed level of analysis as the study progresses.”

The Corps and its Sutter Basin Project partners are applying the pilot study’s methods by communicating early and often in the study process, while not getting hung up on all the details.

The national pilot program already shows signs of progress. In August, the Corps and its partners all agreed that the pilot program’s methods are working, and it was worth moving forward.

“It’s never been done before, so, the framework detailing exactly how to shorten the project’s study process is literally a work in progress,” Whitney said. “There is no set guideline or model to go by; so we have to be firm and flexible at the same time.”

The must-be-ready-to-adapt attitude is necessary among all the project team members to ensure success of the Sutter Basin Project, since it’s one of the first pilot study projects chosen by the Corps to help lay groundwork for changing the current planning process on future Corps projects.

“We can’t go on doing things the way we’ve always done them,” said Col. Bill Leady commander of the Sacramento District.

Leady said the current planning process for complex projects like the Sutter Basin Project can become overly detailed, expensive and take a long time. The amount of time and data being invested in studies is not necessarily leading to a better product or decision, which can increase frustration.

“The nation, the tax payer, can’t accept a five- and 10-year study process on certain projects,” Leady said.

The national pilot program still has a lot of things still up in the air right now, but one thing is certain; the district and its pilot study are setting a new pace.

“We’re moving forward in a great way, (but) there is still a long way to go and a lot of work to do,” said Leady after the project’s August milestone was reached. “We are on the right path to success; our challenge is to stay on it. I don’t just think this pilot study is a good idea—it’s essential.”