At the June 26 meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, representatives from the Army Corps were present to update the Council on the interim results of the Delta Islands and Levees Feasibility Study, as well as the Corps’ interim policy for the Levee Rehabilitation Program.
The Army Corps Delta Islands and Levees Feasibility Study
Cindy Messer began by noting that the Corps Sacramento District released the draft Delta Islands and Levees Feasibility study and accompanying environmental impact statement for public earlier this year. The purpose of the feasibility study is determine whether there is a federal interest in providing funding for and implementing flood risk management and ecosystem restoration improvements in the Delta, she said.
The study did several things: it identified flood risk management and ecosystem restoration issues and opportunities in the Delta, it developed and evaluated measures to solve these identified issues, it formulated and compared alternatives specifically for ecosystem restoration, and it identified a tentatively selected plan for implementation of ecosystem restoration, she said. “The results of the study indicated no federal interest in structural flood risk management improvements, but again did indicate an interest in one ecosystem restoration improvement.”
Council staff met with Corps regarding the study to discuss the planning and policy guidelines and constraints, and to gain a better understanding of the study itself and the approach that was taken, as well as have more discussion around the findings of the study, especially the lack of federal interest in the flood risk management improvements, Ms. Messer said. The Council also provided comments to the Corps before the close of the public comment period; those comments addressed the location, sediment concerns, and elevation considerations, as well as the lack of structural flood risk management improvements, she said.
“Lastly, we wanted to open the door and leave it open in terms of expressing our interest in future opportunities and to have state and federal partnerships around these types of feasibility studies, around restoration in the Delta, as well as flood risk management,” she said. “We had discussions among staff about potential opportunities and how to coordinate with one another, but we wanted to make sure to put that in writing. We realize we need to talk to a broader audience of Corps management around those opportunities and around the planning and policy constraints that really shaped the results of this particular study.”
Ms. Messer than introduced the panel, consisting of Brooke Schlenker, the Army Corps lead planner for the feasibility study, who gave the bulk of the presentation, with Mark Cowan, Chief of the Water Resources Branch in the planning division of the Army Corps Sacramento District, and Dave Mraz, Chief of Delta Levees and Environmental Engineering branch at the Department of Water Resources, providing comments.
The Delta Islands and Levees Feasibility Study started back in 2006 with an agreement with DWR to initiate the study, began Brooke Schlenker. She explained that the study started as a mechanism to get the Corps involved in DWR’s Delta Risk Management Strategy, so for the first few years, the focus was on participating in DRMS. After the first phase of the DRMS was completed, the Corps worked to develop the foundation of the study, defining what problems and opportunities were, working with the DWR and having semi-quarterly agency coordination meetings, she said.
In 2012, the process for feasibility studies was changed so that the timelines were accelerated and the Corps would come to an answer more quickly; in response, the Corps conducted a series of rescoping charrettes to change the strategy. “That really frames what I’m going to walk through with you today because it helps define why we started out as this broader flood risk management ecosystem restoration Delta-wide, and our final recommendation is solely focused on ecosystem restoration in a smaller area,” she said, emphasizing that the report out right now is an interim report. “We do have an open authority to continue that investigation as we move forward.”
The draft report is out for review, and the general process moving forward is to incorporate the comments and make changes as necessary; if all goes as planned, the final report will be completed in the fall which will then be transformed into a recommendation to Congress for the authorization of a joint federal and state project, she said. “Right now we’re trying to define where the federal interest is to recommend a project for design and construction, so relatively speaking, we’re still early on in that process,” she said.
The study area is the legal Delta and Suisun Marsh, but there are other overlapping Corps investigations with that footprint, such as the American River Common Features project, the West Sacramento General Reevaluation, and the Lower San Joaquin Feasibility Study. “We’re looking at flood risk management for the purpose of this Delta study solely at in-Delta flood risk; we’re not looking at the Sacramento area, we’re not looking at the Stockton area, knowing that those areas do extend into the Delta but they are being addressed through other studies,” she said.
Ms. Schlenker pointed out that the flood risk management analysis is focused solely on risks to life and property in the Delta; it is not a water supply investigation. “The flood risk management benefits are solely in Delta flood risk benefit categories as in what would be protected through some sort of levee improvement project,” she said. “The other key point is that our ecosystem restoration analysis is focused on areas that are not considered by other investigations.”
Our two overarching goals of restoring sustainable ecosystem functions and improving flood risk management are generally in line with the goals of others, she said. It is the planning constraints that define the limiting factors, and our planning constraints were that the project couldn’t be depending upon the BDCP, and it cannot impede the BDCP. “The intent was to find a way to add value in light of all of the uncertainty, so we wanted to formulate something that wouldn’t be dependent upon any other actions agencies would take, but also wouldn’t hinder.”
For federal flood risk management projects, the bottom is line is that they have to save more in preventative damage then they cost to build, or in other words, the benefit to cost ratio must be greater than 1, she said. “Based on the Delta Risk Management Strategy data, we selected four areas that we felt were the most likely contenders to meet that benefit to cost ratio criteria, and that was Bethel Island, Walnut Grove, Discovery Bay, and Isleton.”
“We tried to maximize the benefits and keep the costs down as much as possible to try and see if any of these areas could be carried forward for further evaluation, but the bottom line is that our best benefit to cost ratio was in the Isleton area, and that was .76, so none of these areas could be carried forward for consideration for federal investment and that’s really what it comes down to is that economic analysis,” she said, noting that the analysis is based on life and property in the Delta at risk and is not looking at water supply benefits, which is key.
“It’s important to note that we do acknowledge there’s still a life loss risk within the Delta,” said Ms. Schlenker. “Just because the economics don’t pencil out to recommend a federal levee investment, we try to be very clear in our report and our message that there’s still a flood risk within the Delta and there’s a risk to life, and we strongly recommend the extended and continued non-structural flood risk management actions such as risk communication and advance warning systems, evacuation planning, and other things that can be done by the federal government, the Corps, and others to reduce flood risk in the Delta without the billions of dollars of costs to do some sort of structural fix. There are other things that can be done to help reduce that risk and we want to highlight the importance of that.”
For ecosystem restoration, we started with general measures such as restoring tidal marsh and restoring riparian habitat, and then began to look for locations where those types of measures could be implemented; that was largely limited by the planning constraint of avoiding areas that were under consideration by others, she said. The remaining areas were then screened by generally how much would it cost to do that restoration and what it comes down to how much does it cost to get an acre of restored habitat. “Obviously there’s a quality factor but in general, first look was at the general cost per acre, and the drivers in the costs were setback levees and land values; the big driver was setback levees,” she said. “We identified two areas that wouldn’t require setback levees at Big Break, Frank’s Tract and Little Franks’ Tract that are already flooded areas that would not require setback levees at the millions of dollars of costs that that would add per acre.”
“One of the issues for us is whether this is high value, medium value, or low value habitat restoration,” interjected Councilmember Phil Isenberg. “I think the tentative staff view is that it’s pretty low value because well-flooded land is not automatically guaranteed to be rehabitable in anything like an original condition. Was that kind of consideration part of your thought?”
“It was and the concept is built off of some restoration that the Corps undertook in the 90s at Donlin Island, just at the western tip of Sherman Island,” responded Ms. Schlenker. “That was a flooded area used for mitigation for some deepening work that was done on the Stockton Deep Water Ship Channel, with quite extensive monitoring done afterwards. It’s been a successful tidal marsh at Donlin Island that started out as open water habitat, so the perspective we were coming from is that we have a tried and tested action very similar concept to what we’re proposing.”
Mr. Isenberg asks if this project is connected to the work in the Deep Water Ship Channel. Ms. Schlenker responds that it is not tied to the deepening of the Stockton channel, but that they are talking about previously dredged material being used which is stored elsewhere. “The first goal was not to use dredged material. Where we need material to reach that target elevation, we happen to have this material potentially available, and pursued it from that perspective.”
Ms. Schlenker said that the lessons learned from Donlin and other Bay Area projects is that the key for successful restoration is hitting the target elevation. “If you can bring those areas back up to the right target elevation, the vegetation and habitat seems to take off and be pretty self-sufficient,” she said. “The infill material there would come from both the existing maintenance dredging operations and stockpiled material from previous dredging actions.”
The interim recommendation is to restore 89 acres of wetlands at a cost of $29 million, which is determined by how much fill material is available at a palatable enough cost per acre to recommend federal investment. “We did look at other fill material options and really once you run out of that available fill material, you’re talking about trekking and barging material in from unknown sources and other stockpiles and that’s when the cost per acre really gets to be unreasonable,” she said.
“Another key point is that it’s an area that obviously doesn’t affect land use; we’re not taking agricultural lands out of production to restore it,” she said. “We feel that the restoration would contribute to improved habitat for listed species and combat invasive species, so from the Corps perspective, and the resource agencies seem to be in agreement that this would add value from a restoration perspective, and it also does combat invasive species because these open water areas are largely home to invasive currently, so you’re going from a very degraded habitat to a much higher quality native habitat.”
Ms. Schlenker said this is a draft report that is currently undergoing multiple reviews. The Corps will do revisions based on comments received and expects to have a final report in the fall. “The final report would be then pending approval by the chief of engineers; it will then be called a chief’s report and ultimately serves as a document to make a recommendation to Congress for action,” she said. “If the project were to be authorized and funded, we would anticipate that construction could start as soon as 2018.”
Before the Corps can proceed with the project, there must be a non-federal sponsor that’s willing to cost share, she said, noting that the cost share for studies is 50/50 and the cost share for construction is 65/35 with the federal government paying 65%.
Mark Cowan,Chief of the Water Resources Branch in the planning division of the Army Corps Sacramento District, emphasized that this is an interim study. “What is being proposed here isn’t being seen as a holistic or complete position of where federal interests may lie in providing additional flood damage reduction to the Delta area, or even ecosystem restoration opportunities, so as we proceed here with this study, we want to make sure we keep those opportunities open. Where we believe there’s additional opportunities, we can maybe look and see how we can work closely together on those and maybe flesh some of those out and bring those to fruition also.”
Dave Mraz, Chief of Delta Levees and Environmental Engineering branch at the Department of Water Resources, said he was here as the representative of the local sponsor. “From my perspective, the tentatively selected plan is in line with the state’s goals and objectives for the Delta,” he said. “We have water supply reliability and ecosystem enhancement. This proposal that we have for restoring subtidal areas has no negative impact on the water supply and indeed it may have a positive impact on the water supply; that’s yet to be modeled. That will come up when we get to the final design. With respect to the fisheries, it will have a small impact during the time of construction which will ultimately end up in additional tidal area productive area that’s better than what it is now. We’re going to get rid of some invasives. One other thing that this shows is that there is federal interest in doing some project in the Delta, no matter how modest that may be.”
“We still have continuing authority to expand,” he continued. “The study is structured around the Corps of Engineers mission and that mission does not necessarily include water supply, so we have the opportunity to look and adjust that mission a little bit in the future so that we can start capturing more benefits that may show that the flood risk reduction measures become economically feasible. There is little to object to in this project. There’s no land out of an ag, there’s no unwilling sellers, it reuses a commodity – dredge material that we otherwise have to figure out what to do with, there’s only short term negative impacts to fisheries which become long term positive impacts and as a simple modest project, it gives an opportunity to show that there can be cooperation between federal and state interests in the Delta and it gives us the opportunity to show success. So, all things considered, the Department is a willing participant in this project as we go forward and we’re looking forward to seeing some better projects in the future.”
The Army Corps interim policy for the Levee Rehabilitation Program
The Army Corps PL 84-99 program encompasses both flood response activities and the rehabilitation program as well as some other authorities to provide assistance to state and local entities during an emergency event, began Paige Caldwell, Emergency Manager for the Sacramento District of the Army Corps of Engineers.
In November, Army Corps headquarters issued a notification telling the Districts to suspend issuing eligibility determinations. “Prior to Nov 25, we would go out and inspect a levee and we would issue eligibility determinations for rehabilitation assistance based on that inspection criteria,” she said. “There are programs that are in our rehabilitation program that are active. These are systems that were either federally constructed or there are allowances for non-federal systems to join our program by us going out and conducting an initial eligibility inspection. Most of the Delta levees would fall into that category where we’d do an initial eligibility inspection and then if it was determined that they meet our standards, then they would be allowed into our program. Then following a flood event, if they needed our assistance, we could go back out and help them with rehabilitation efforts.”
In November, our headquarters issued our temporary suspension on issuing those eligibility determinations. The policy that was issued in March reinstated eligibility determinations, but based on a smaller subset of inspection items, she said. “Under this new policy issued, we would still inspect all of those items, but eligibility would be based on a much smaller subset of those items.”
“The primary purpose of the interim policy was to continue to focus on repairing the levee systems in a worst first approach and provide interim criteria for determining eligibility for rehab assistance during the transition to the development of a final policy and revisions of our code of federal regulations, using a subset of the existing overall criteria to determine eligibility in a manner that would not create an incident or to take actions that might negatively impact natural resources or tribal rights,” she said.
The items subset selection were based on those items where inspectors could clearly determine performance issues, and the maintaining agencies would have to receive a minimally acceptable or acceptable rating on the subset items in order to continue to have eligibility, she said.
Ms. Caldwell then presented a slide with a list of the 18 items in the subset, noting that the ones listed in the green box are the ones primarily affecting the Delta region. Those items are encroachments, closures structures on levee embankments, slope stability, erosion and bank caving, animal control, culverts and discharge pipes, and relief wells and toe drains.
“Regardless of this policy, and as it’s always been, if requested by the state to assist with flood fighting activities, flood response, we will be there to support if the system is in our program or not,” said Ms. Caldwell. “The only caveat is that if it’s solely an agricultural levee, we don’t flood fight those, but whether you’re active in PL 84-99 rehab program does not matter as far as flood fight is concerned.”
Ms. Caldwell said that currently inactive levees can request to be reinspected for eligibility and the interim criteria will be used as a determination for eligibility.
For those levee agencies developing a System Wide Improvement Framework (SWIF), a plan that agencies submit to the Corps that details how they will address the levee issues, they are encouraged to continue to develop and implement SWIFs for all the standards, but they are allowed to reduce what’s covered in the SWIF to the subset of items.
There are three current letters of intent which are precursors to the SWIF in the legal Delta now: RD 800 Byron Tract, a piece of maintenance area 9 on the left bank of the Sacramento River, and then Mormon Slough and Calaveras River area, she said.
This policy does not impact ongoing studies or projects, and new construction must still comply with the engineering technical letter, she said.
“Of the current inactive systems within our program, almost all will remain inactive based on the subset of items,” she said. “There was only one that was determined inactive due to vegetation.”
Improvements will be made to the rehabilitation program to further synchronize with the Corps emphasis on fixing the worst issues first and advances in flood risk management and levee safety such as Revising its eligibility criteria to promote broader flood risk management activities such as emergency preparedness planning and risk communication, prioritizing maintenance activities based on risk, and aligning flood risk terminology and activities across USACE’s various programs, she said, noting that the final policy will go through a formal rulemaking process.
“That’s my presentation.”
Chair Randy Fiorini asked what’s the growth in eligibility given this interim policy versus what existed before.
“To enter into our program, the Delta levees, most of them, would still need to apply under our initial eligibility inspection program,” she said. “We would go out and inspect their levee system, and if they were able to meet all of our inspection criteria except for a few that are not on the subset list, then they would be allowed to join our program. If they hit on that subset of items, they would not be allowed to.”