DELTA STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL: Overview of the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan

The update to the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan was adopted by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board in August of 2017.  At the September meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, Mike Mierzwa, Chief of the Flood Planning Office for the Department of Water Resources, and John Cain, Director of Conservation for California Flood Management, American Rivers, were on hand to brief the Council on the update.

Here’s what they had to say.


Mike Mierzwa began the panel discussion with a brief overview of the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, noting that the plan covers an area roughly the size of the state of Florida.

The state of California has about 14,000 miles of levees, the majority of which are locally owned.  There are 1,600 miles of state-federal levees, which are called the State Plan of Flood Control levees.  Additionally, there are other state-federal levees that are not part of the State Plan of Flood Control; some of those are located south of Fresno within the Central Valley.  The Central Valley’s flood control system includes an extensive system of bypasses and floodways and two completely different river basins.  Within each of those rivers there are five major tributaries.  There are also five major urban centers located within the Central Valley, dozens of smaller communities, and dozens of endangered species.  There are currently 1.3 million people who live in the floodplains, and probably three times as many people who do not live on a floodplain but work on them.  Currently, about $80 billion of property and assets at risk within the Central Valley.

SB 5, the Central Valley Flood Protection Act of 2008, required DWR to prepare the Central Valley Flood Protection Board by January 1, 2012, and the Central Valley Flood Protection Board to adopt the plan by July 1, 2012; it is required to be updated every 5 years.  The 2017 update to the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan is the first major update of that plan which contains refinements to the work that was conducted from 2007 to 2012.

Mr. Mierzwa presented a graphic, explaining that on the left is showing a summary of the results from a cost perspective and a benefit perspective.  The bottom axis shows the contributions to the primary goal of flood risk management; the vertical axis has the four supporting goals also called out in the legislation, which are to address operations and maintenance, ecosystem improvements, identify multi-benefit projects, and to address governance and institutional support considerations.

The bubbles indicate how much more flood risk reduction could be achieved based on a portfolio of actions.   The size of the bubbles is a little problematic in that as the bubbles get larger, that represents a larger cost to go through and achieve those objectives over time, he said.  “In 2012, the time frame at which we could achieve each of those objectives was different based off of what we thought we could do based off those portfolio of actions, and they range from the smallest implementation in the orange there being a 10 year implementation to being about 40 years in the larger green bubble.  The cost for each of the scenarios also varied, which led the state in 2012 to adopt a state system-wide investment approach, which is the blue-orange-green bar there in the middle.”

In 2012, the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan’s high end estimate of costs was $17 billion.  “With our update in 2012, we added several new technical analyses,” he said.  “We had a conservation strategy, we had an operations maintenance repair rehabilitation replacement report, and we entered into contracts with local agencies in the Central Valley to have six different regional flood management plans incorporated.  We took a bottom up approach, we had a list of other project activities that could be included within the plan, and then finally we had two separate basin-wide feasibility studies, one for the Sacramento Basin and one for the San Joaquin basin.”

Based off of those four foundation work efforts, the objectives of improving flood risk as well as achieving the secondary objectives were increased for only a modest cost increase,” he said.  “The blue bubble for the 2017 update represents about $21 billion over the next 30 years.”

The Central Valley Flood Protection Plan is intended to link into the state’s overall investment infrastructure plans and to inform the annual California 5-year infrastructure investment plan for the legislature.

The 2012 CVFPP called for a total investment of $17 billion with the state cost share of about $8 billion.  In 2013, the Statewide Flood Investment Report estimated there were $15 billion worth of shovel-ready capital improvements across the state to be implemented.  The 2017 CVFPP now calls for $21 billion with the state’s cost share representing $12 billion.  They also updated the cost estimates statewide from $50 to $80 billion, in part using the cost escalation seen with the CVFPP as well as additional conversations that the Department of Resources has had with over a hundred local agencies in the state.

The cost estimates are intended to inform the overall investment needed in the state of California for flood management infrastructure.  “That information is not completely getting in there,” he said.  “The state estimated $43 billion of publicly owned infrastructure that is needed to be invested in, $40 billion of which is in the transportation sector, so the intent is for the Department to take the CVFPP, our statewide reports as we update those on 5 year basis, and use that information to give the legislature more concrete idea of what’s needed in the next 5 years for investing in our public infrastructure.”

Mr. Mierzwa then gave the cost breakdowns.  The Central Valley Flood Protection Plan includes capital and ongoing costs over a 30 year time horizon; the 30 year time horizon was based off of what is a reasonable rate of return on investments, and when you begin to look beyond 30 years, the present value of those future investments become trivial, he said.

The cost estimates were broken down between four different discrete areas of interests.  The systemwide interests are the things the state principally is the leader of implementing and cost sharing.  They also looked at urban areas, rural areas, and small community areas.  The cost are broken down for both the Sacramento and San Joaquin basins in high and low ranges; combined, the costs range between $17 and $21 billion dollars.  Mr. Mierzwa said that for the rest of his presentation, he would use the higher cost estimate of $21 billion.

The statewide actions call for a $9 billion investment; these actions include improvements to the bypasses and reservoir operations, as well as opportunities to seek floodplain storage.  There are ongoing costs, emergency management and routine maintenance costs, and then overall investment and systemwide actions bolster our long-term resiliency as a complement to the smaller scale actions that are covered in the other three items from the previous slide.

Two examples of large scale system improvements include flood risk reductions and ecosystem improvements in the Yolo Bypass and the Paradise Cut project to reduce floodwaters on the San Joaquin Rivers as they pass through the urban communities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Stockton by allowing that water to move through the Delta.  “This graphic depicts both some of the flood risk reduction and ecosystem features that are envisioned within the plan on that,” he said.  “Both of these features would require detailed project designs for the incremental projects that come out, and so the intent of the plan was not to authorize the projects but instead to talk about the outcomes and the investment needed to achieve these types of projects over time.”

The Central Valley Flood Protection Plan’s 2017 update utilized increased modeling detail.  In 2012, they used the Central Valley hydrology study model, and with the 2017 update, they used the Central Valley floodplain evaluation delineation model.  “This is really the first time that we can model water coming from the entire Central Valley watershed in a physically based, real-time system all the way through the river channels, floodplains, and out to the ocean,” he said.  “I think this is a major significant accomplishment that really isn’t highlighted within the plan, but buried in our technical appendices.”

The detailed operations and maintenance, repair, rehabilitation, and replacement report was developed in conjunction with stakeholders, based in part on information coming from DWR’s Delta levees programs.  “In this report, we talked about the age of structures and the current funding gap,” he said.  “The walkaway message is that we found right now local agencies in the state of California are spending about $30 million per year for maintenance activities, but to actually meet what is legislatively required of all of these agencies, we should be spending a minimum of $130 million per year.  In context, Harris County, Texas flood control district spends $100 million per year just for the maintenance of that particular community’s flood management system.”

He noted that the graphic shows the cost of maintaining the system based off of 1950s control manuals; in 2016, the icons of money bags with other color-shaded costs represent all of the unfunded mandates we are asking our flood management system to incorporate and to achieve over time and is part of the basis for that $130 million annual estimate.

Part of the Governor’s Executive Order B-3015 called upon state agencies to incorporate life cycle cost estimates into investment decisions, so with the O&M report, they looked at the cost of both routine operations and maintenance annual costs as well as the unusual unanticipated costs associated with repairs, rehabilitation, and recovery from events.

The Central Valley Flood Protection Plan does include both the routine operations and maintenance costs, and they do have estimated costs to repair or recover facilities after 1997-like flood events.  However, the one set of costs that aren’t included in the costs estimates is the cost of retiring and replacing structures, he said.

Something that is very important is when we’re going through and making investments in the future is to estimate a design-life associated with these structures,” he said.  “Are these levees designed to last 20 years? 50 years? Or a 100 years?  The reason that’s important in investment planning is we need to know when they are near the end of their design life, so we can begin in the next planning cycle to incorporate what the costs are of replacing those structures with something else that meets the current needs at that time.”

The conservation strategy has many concepts within it, one of the most important being the need to setback the levees to make room for the rivers.  The graphic on the top shows the present levee system where the rivers have narrow corridors to move floodwaters through, which puts added stress on the levees and can lead to even greater damage when the waters pass over or through those levee, Mr. Mierzwa said.  “By setting back our levees, which is shown on the graphic on the bottom, not only do we have the opportunity to reconnect to our flood plains and achieve ecosystem benefits, but we can reduce the pressure on our levees, which reduces the annual costs of going through and maintaining these levee systems over time.

The conservation strategy also has measurable objectives for long-term needs and opportunities for ecosystem improvements, which supports secondary goals within the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan.

The CVFPP update worked to address the concurrence of sea level rise and base impacts of storm surge, concurrent with flood waters coming through the system.  This graphic here depicts some of the modeling technique where they looked at the Golden Gate and incorporated future mid and late century sea level rise projections to describe what the backwater effects would be when floodwaters would be moving through the system, he said.

One of the more unique things that we have presented within the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan is instead of talking about an Army Corps of Engineers benefit-cost ratio, is we’ve actually focused in on the value of life loss reductions that we can achieve by having a well maintained and improved flood management system,” he said.  “What you’re looking at here are the projections from 2007 through 2067 of what the annual expected life loss within the entire Sacramento River basin is, based on having a Central Valley Flood Protection Plan in green versus not having the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan in blue.  This demonstrates some of the early returns in value of our investments made with the money in Prop 84, where in 2007 the annual expected life loss in Sacramento River basin was expected to be around 290 lives per year, but with the early implementation program in the first decade of investments, the state, local agencies, and the federal government have made, we’ve cut that number down by three-quarters to about 66 lives per year.”

With some of the work that we’re doing now, the expected annual life loss has dropped down to about 22,” he continued.  “Now as the population continues to grow, those numbers with or without the CVFPP will increase, and so the investments that are envisioned within this 2017 update can drop that expected increase from 141 down to 43 lives per year.  The numbers for the San Joaquin Basin are actually much more optimistic, where the CVFPP can actually reverse the future trends of expected life loss there.”

Mr. Mierzwa said the conceptual basis for the plan were the River Basin Planning 10 Golden Rules, which were based of a UNESCO document on good planning principles and policies.  “Two that I really wanted to call out to attention here is a recognition that planning processes are often iterative and chaotic; that is the logic in having a 5-year update to the CVFPP and the reason why my team is already working on scoping out the 2022 CVFPP,” he said.

One of my favorite rules is the importance of engaging stakeholders with a view to strengthening the institutional relationships.  In other words, it really takes a village to raise a child out here, and by having a strong communications and engagement process which we did in 2017 and by incorporating stakeholder feedback out there, the likelihood of success of achieving the outcomes that are set forth in the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan is much higher.”

The plan identifies 8 key policy areas: land use and floodplain and management policies and recommendations; residual risk management policies; hydraulic and ecosystem baselines and program phasing considerations; operations and maintenance of the flood system; the need for the development of multi-benefit projects in the Central Valley; effective governance and institutional support; coordination with federal agencies; and finance.

One of the areas they had some of the most significant and repeated stakeholders comments were about how to achieve $21 billion in funding over the next 30 years.  They did go through and look at both the state, federal, and local cost shares, which are the general mechanisms outlined in the detailed investment strategy.

Mr. Mierzwa said there were three new mechanisms they covered in the update.  “First is reestablishment of existing Sacramento-San Joaquin drainage district, which is administered by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board,” he said.  “We also talked about in conjunction with the California Water Plan of the feasibility of a state river basin assessment in which water actions within river basins would be assessed and then managed through those basins.  This would just be a small contribution to the CVFPP, and then we’ve talked about studying the feasibility of a state flood insurance program, which could pass cost savings on to Californians who right now are subsidizing flood insurance damages across the US.  I will add that right now, the cost estimates of the overlays to the National Flood Insurance Program for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria is somewhere between $50 and $100 billion.  At the federal level, they discuss Army Corps programs, in addition to the federal emergency management programs and other federal ecosystem programs such as those with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.”

The plan update also discusses a series of comprehensive approaches within DWR’s program of activities on how to better manage flood risks within the Central Valley.  Mr. Mierzwa briefly explained the graphic.  There are five mega programs:  Flood risk reduction, which is the first brown wedges; there is also flood system operations and maintenance, emergency response, flood management planning, and flood risk management.  The bullets around the side lists of some of the named programs that DWR currently has that implement actions within each of those mega program areas.

In summary, strategic planning can be used to inform decisions, especially with regards to large systems or watershed assessments, which really require flexibility and refinement, he said.  “It’s very difficult to go through and assess what you can do within an area of the size of the state of Florida; however, if you look at the outcomes and not get focused in on individual projects, you can come up with some really solid order of magnitude cost estimates and opportunities exist out there that can then inform all of the individual programs.”

No plan is perfect, but the difference between what we intend to get with each iteration of the flood plan, our intended outcome and the actual outcome we achieve is invaluable in helping us learn how to strategically address our enabling conditions,” he continued.   “This is in both the policy world or those eight policy items I spoke to, as well as the resourcing, the staff and financial needs that we all need to actually achieve the plan over time.  And then finally implementing partner and stakeholder ownership to the ideas and recommendations in the plan ultimately lead to a more productive set of outcomes.”


John Cain, Director of Conservation for California Flood Management with American Rivers, then gave the perspective of the conservation organizations that participated in the development of the plan.  He began by noting that American Rivers is a national non-profit river conservation organization that works to protect and restore rivers for fish, wildlife and people, and flood management is an important part of that work.

At American Rivers, we believe that public safety is the number one priority because how could it be any different,” he said.  “We care about ecosystem restoration issues and we’ve gotten involved in the flood management activities because we wanted to see a flood management program that could both make our communities and our rivers more resilient to floods and a changing climate.”

Mr. Cain also noted that he has been involved with a larger group of conservation organizations called the Central Valley Study Group that meets every Monday morning to discuss Central Valley flood management.  At least 15 organizations participate in person, with another ten that participate on a call-in basis.

I was lucky enough to attend the late August meeting of the Central Valley Flood Board where the board adopted the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan update, and it was just a love fest,” he said.  “Everybody was thankful and happy.  The Farm Bureau was accounted for, the Reclamation Districts, the Central Valley Flood Control Association, and several NGOs had nothing but good things to say about what DWR and the Board was able to accomplish.  And the Board had nothing but good things to say about how all the stakeholders worked well together, helping pull it together, so we’re very happy with the plan.”

Mr. Cain highlighted three issues that describe the plan:  the first is risk management, the second is outcome based, and the third is multi-benefit flood management.  “At American Rivers, we believe that the best way to protect communities from flood risk and improve the kind of outcomes we want from flood risk management is to give rivers more room to safely convey flood flows, and that one of the best ways to do this is through multi-benefit flood management projects,” he said.

One of the most important flood risk management strategies is floodplain management, specifically not building on dangerous floodplains.  This was a key factor that brought people together; it was not only behind the legislation behind the Central Valley Flood Management Plan, but also the Delta Vision and the Delta Stewardship Council.  Urbanization on low-land floodplains in the early 2000s was something we were all really paying attention to, but the housing bust ended that for awhile, he said.  “We haven’t thought a lot about urbanization of floodplains.  The legislation created this new urban level of protection, which we’re looking for areas of 10,000 people or larger had to provide 200-year protection to allow continued building in their urban area. … The building boom is back and that there are questions about whether we’re doing a good enough job complying with the legal requirements of SB 5 to limit development on floodplains.”

He said that it was his understanding that if the local communities say that they will be able to comply with providing 200-year level of flood protection by the year 2025, and once they’ve made those findings, they can continue permitting development, but he pointed out that there’s no clear process for reviewing those.  “One of the problems is that the question of adequate progress and that they need to make adequate progress by 2025 is somewhat of a suggestive question.  There’s the question of, are you engineering your levees right, do you have a good engineering plan for your levees, and then there’s the question of, are you going to be able to get the funding to do what you say you want to do by 2025, particularly if you are depending a lot on the federal government to come up with that funding. So I’m not going to say that it’s not working, I’m just going to say that it’s something that really deserves our attention.  There are a lot of other good risk management strategies in the plan but it really starts with not putting people in harm’s way.”

Secondly, this is an outcome based plan, meaning it focuses on the desired outcomes that we want to achieve, rather than a list of actions, Mr. Cain said.  “It means that instead of saying, ‘here is the list of actions and we’re going to build all these actions,’ instead it’s says, ‘here are what we’re trying to achieve; bring to us the best ideas; redesign your concepts and projects to better achieve these outcomes.  And that’s the thing that ends up being an iterative process.”

Mr. Cain said that the conservation community is very excited that the plan includes measurable conservation objectives in addition to measurable flood risk reduction objectives.  “One of the reasons it was so important to us is because we believe that modifying the flood system is fundamental to the recovery of several endangered species,” he said.  “Without giving rivers more room, we are not going to be able to achieve both the outcomes of flood risk reduction and ecosystem recovery.  The idea is that this is iterative; we identified the outcomes and now the future design and investment decisions should be guided by analysis of the extent to which different projects, different designs, and different investments advance those outcomes.”

The third element of the plan is the emphasis on multi-benefit projects.  The definition for multiple benefit projects was discussed quite a bit, Mr. Cain said.  “The definition is to reduce flood risk and improve habitat for fish and wildlife, as well as advancing other benefits, but there are two prerequisites: flood risk reduction and improvement in habitat, as well as other benefits like recreation, open space, groundwater recharge, water supply, etc.

Fortunately we are making progress, he said, noting that the work in the Yolo Bypass with the state and various stakeholders, and the Lower Elkhorn project are examples of that.  There are at least a half dozen other projects up and down the valley that are far along in the design and permitting process.  “We are actually doing these multi-benefit flood management projects,” he said.  “It’s not just a dream.”

Lastly, Mr. Cain discussed the Paradise Cut project.  American Rivers has obtained grants from the Delta Conservancy and Department of Fish and Wildlife to start the acquisition process in the footprint of the Paradise Cut.  He noted that the footprint is very consistent with the Delta Plan’s recommendations for Paradise Cut, they’ve been in negotiations with landowners about purchasing flood easements, and there’s no opposition to the plan.

But there are challenges moving forward, he said.  “One of the challenges we have is one of the key pieces of property out there, 1100 of the 2000 acres that needs to be acquired actually has an agricultural conservation easement on it.  And this agricultural conservation easement could preclude the holder of that easement, the Central Valley Farmland Trust from providing permission to do this flood bypass.”

Mr. Cain said that it really speaks to the larger problem of how to do flood management-friendly, wildlife-friendly agriculture in more of a multi-benefit landscape, when the particular easements that are written and the particular laws that we have have sent us down a different pathway.  “For example, this easement says you can’t do anything to restrict of impair the agricultural use of the property,” he said.  “Fortunately, the Central Valley Farmland Trust has been very helpful and professional on this, and we are now convening an expert panel to help us understand what are the legal and technical opportunities to resolve this problem properly.”


Councilman Patrick Johnston asks what the measurable conservation goals are.

John Cain said it’s not a short answer, but for one, American Rivers worked in partnership with a graduate student at UC Berkeley and DWR to identify a new metric called the expected annual floodplain habitat; the DWR team also worked in collaboration with Fish and Wildlife agencies to develop several other metrics of ecosystem improvement.

Mike Mierzwa noted that Table 2-1 in the plan lists all of the actual outcomes as well as the metrics that to track those outcomes over time.  “Within the ecosystem realm, we had three outcomes.  The first was reducing stressors on the riverine and floodplain ecosystems and one of the metrics we proposed was actually counting the acreage of non-native plant species that have been removed.  Another one of the metrics we presented in the plan is the number of priority fish passage barriers that have been improved or removed over time.  …  The other two broad categories we had were improving riverine and floodplain habitats and ecosystems; and then a catchall which was increase and maintain the abundancy and diversity of floodplain dependent native species.

Chair Randy Fiorini asked what the linkage is between the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan and the Delta Plan.

Mike Mierzwa said that the two plans were developed in concert.  “There’s actually multiple linkages.  The obvious one included in the staff report are that there are 1600 miles of levees that are part of the State Plan of Flood Control system, 300 of those are within the legal boundaries of the Delta, so there is a connection and opportunity for the two plans working together on that sort of perspective.  The second thing are the actions that are covered within the Delta Plan or within the CVFPP have the potential in the future to backwater or pass through flows for either of those two planning areas, so there’s a nexus of what happens outside as the water doesn’t respect plan boundaries and moves through the entire system. … The key message for you right now is that I feel very comfortable that these documents are very complementary to each other.


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