Who deserves a levee? The fight to save California communities from flooding

Lisa M. Krieger, Harriet Blair Rowan, Bay Area News Group on

Published in Weather News

The tiny town of Hamilton City sits in the direct path of the mighty Sacramento River, muddy and swollen by this week’s storms.

But a new $125 million levee system — the product of the community’s 35-year-long fight to make something big from something broken — is protecting its 1,900 farmworkers and their families.

This week, as a levee failure drowned the town of Pajaro, Hamilton City’s river also overflowed. But then it gently spread across a landscaped floodplain, losing its fury. The levee held firm. The system, the first of its type in the state, offers a new paradigm for how to respond to flood risk in an era of dangerous climate change.

“It’s doing what it’s supposed to do,” said former fire chief Jose Puente, who proudly watched the project excel in its big test.

There are 1,758 levee systems throughout California listed in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers database, built to hold back rivers and protect towns, homes, businesses and crops from flooding. Sixty years old on average, many are past their design lives. But the highest priority for replacing the structures is awarded to affluent urban areas, not small, rural and disadvantaged communities.

The tale of this town, two hours north of Sacramento, shows the challenge of protecting these modest places. Under a federal formula that weighs property values, the cost of building a levee to protect a small community far exceeds the economic benefit.


Like Pajaro, Hamilton City lives on the edge of a volatile river. Like Pajaro, its residents are largely low-income Latinos. Like Pajaro, it repeatedly sought federal funds to fix its levee, and was repeatedly rebuffed.

But there are differences, and that’s what saved Hamilton City. A group of six farmers, most of them now dead, started the construction campaign decades ago. It stayed unified and relentless in its focus. Volunteers, supported by homespun “Levee Festivals,” made 15 trips to Washington, D.C., knocking on doors in Congress to win the hearts of political heavyweights such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former Sen. Barbara Boxer and others.

A Bay Area News Group analysis of the U.S. Army Corps’ National Levee Database found that 48 California levee systems are categorized as moderate to very high risk, 743 miles out of 5,400 total levee miles in the state. In greatest peril, it found, are four levees in the Sacramento Valley: one in Natomas, along the Sacramento River; two along the American River, above Sacramento, and the fourth along the Feather River, threatening the towns of Yuba City, Live Oak, Gridley and Biggs.

Many have been improved over the past decade, but others don’t meet modern engineering standards, according to the 2019 Report Card for California’s Infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gives the state’s levees a “D” rating. They can’t cope with the pressures of a changing climate, strict environmental regulations, rigorous maintenance needs, updated safety standards and rising construction costs.


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