This aerial view looks northeast over the flooded neighborhood of West Linda in Linda, California and toward Highway 70 near Feather River Blvd. The south levee of the Yuba River in the distance was breached during the massive Northern California flood of 1986, that forced thousands of residents to evacuate their homes in Linda and Olivehurst. The Sacramento Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range received a half-year's precipitation in 10 days from a series of intense Pacific storms, with the Feather, Yuba and American Rivers receiving the brunt of the rainfall. Photo taken February 27, 1986. Norm Hughes / California Department of Water Resources

GUEST COMMENTARY: The Gulf Hurricane is a Call to Action to Protect Californians from Catastrophic Floods

Guest commentary by Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton and former state senator Mike Machado:

Michael Tubbs, Mayor of Stockton

2020 has taught us that one of the fundamental responsibilities of government is to protect our communities, families and livelihoods.  That means more than responding to disasters like a pandemic.  It means looking down the road to prevent them. 

The terrible impact of Hurricane Laura on Gulf Coast communities is a wake up call for California decision-makers about the need to prepare for – and to prevent – catastrophic flooding that could be as close as the next storm.

No California communities are more shaped by water than those in the Delta.  Water surrounds communities like Stockton.  Water shaped our history and still shapes our economy, quality of life, culture, and is essential for a healthy environment.  

And for our communities, water-related disasters are devastating. We see proof of that every day.

Because of poor water quality, the Delta suffers from increasingly frequent toxic algae blooms.   Parents fear that their children could be at risk by simply swimming in rivers on a hot summer day.  But state agencies have not cleaned up water quality to prevent this problem.

Now Hurricane Laura reminds us of the risk of floods.  Scientists have long warned about the potential for a disastrous California flood like the one that inundated the state capitol in 1862.  That risk is growing.  The State has found that climate change could double flood flows on the San Joaquin River, which could direct a flood firehose toward Stockton.  Flood flows and storm surge could cause a “Katrina-like” flood disaster in Stockton.  Without a major effort, that risk will only increase. 

Fortunately, California’s Central Valley Flood Protection Board is writing a new Central Valley Flood Plan. The Central Valley Flood Protection Board should focus on the overlooked San Joaquin River by preparing a flood master plan that takes an integrated look at the entire river. 

But there’s another problem, the current plan excludes Stockton.  That’s right.  The largest city on the San Joaquin River is not included in the state’s flood plan for the river.  Neighborhoods like Weston Ranch and Conway are the most vulnerable; infrastructure like the Stockton sewage treatment plant is at risk.

Flood management is often overlooked as a social justice issue.  Disadvantaged communities and communities of color are too often neglected and lack essential flood protection.  Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Laura and far too many other tragedies remind of this oversight. 

After all, disadvantaged communities – like many in Stockton – are often forced to locate on the land most at risk of floods.   It’s unacceptable when a state flood plan ignores that risk. 

This must stop now.

The next state Flood Plan must deliver effective flood solutions for all of Stockton and our neighbors. 

The good news is that we know the best way to prevent a flood disaster.    Improving local levees is only part of the solution.  A main focus of preventing a flood disaster should be to design a flood plan that works with nature to restore rivers while reducing flood risk.  In the Delta, we can do that by building the Paradise Cut bypass.  This desperately needed infrastructure can protect Stockton in the South Delta, just as the Yolo Bypass protects Sacramento in the North Delta.

Upstream on the San Joaquin, we must build ambitious multibenefit floodplain projects that dramatically expand the ability of the river to absorb high flows before they hit Stockton   This approach is universally supported, not only because of flood control but also as a result of its many other benefits. 

Projects like Dos Rios at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne Rivers show how restoring floodplain forests can provide a wide range of benefits; reduced flood risk, groundwater recharge, improved water quality, better habitat, reduced levee maintenance and a beautiful place for valley residents to visit.

Water is our future.  The ability to recreate on, fish and swim in our rivers is and will be central to our quality of life and ability to attract good new jobs.  That future can be a bright one – if state agencies do their job to develop a flood plan that addresses the needs of all our communities, to protect us from the water related disasters that threaten us today. 

About the authors: Michael Tubbs is Stockton’s Mayor.  Mike Machado is a farmer, former State Senator and author of landmark flood legislation. 

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