Sunday, March 26, 2006

Flood Control Editorial & Public Leadership

This editorial from today’s Bee highlights the confusion residents of the Sacramento region feel about flood danger, and how ill-served they have been by their public servants.

A recent story in a public administration journal profiles the former head of the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), Dr. Elmer Staats, and in the story a note was made of the comments said about him by another senior GAO manager as “a pragmatic agent of good government” who viewed GAP audit reports as “a way to achieve results rather than simply hitting someone over the head”.

Also in the profile, the current comptroller general, David M. Walker, said. “In addition to his record of remarkable achievements over a lifetime, Elmer is widely considered one of the finest public servants of our time—a man who is admired as much for his intellect and ability as for his decency and devotion to the public good.” (PAR, 66/2 p. 159)

With the consequences that can arise from inadequate attention to our flood danger, let’s hope that the same can someday be said about our public leadership in addressing the most important public issue of the day.

That is the reality I would pick.

Here is an excerpt from the editorial.

Editorial: Pick your reality
Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, March 26, 2006

The tens of thousands of Sacramento residents who live in the fast-growing Natomas neighborhoods have got to be confused. They learn in The Bee news pages that the Sacramento River levees protecting their homes don't meet the standards of a levee able to withstand a 100-year flood. Yet the government isn't saying they must start buying federal flood insurance because, given this unsettling new levee information, they now live within the 100-year floodplain.

True: Natomas isn't in the 100-year floodplain.

Also true: Natomas is in the 100-year floodplain.

The explanation is rather simple. The official 100-year floodplain map is what the federal government says it is. And sometimes the feds are a little slow at redrawing a floodplain map based on new information. So the old, official map is in effect.

And in the back of everyone's mind who is following this, the floodplain map for Natomas would be very different if the feds redrew it based on today's reality.

In the 1990s, after some levee improvements that everyone at the time thought were sufficient, the Federal Emergency Management Agency inked a new floodplain map for this deep basin.

Before the levee fixes, the basin was within the 100-year floodplain (an area that has a 1-in-100 chance of flooding any given winter). After the fixes, the floodplain shrank. Natomas, according to the map, was high and dry. No mandatory flood insurance. No word to many new residents of any flood dangers.

Then, in 1997, it rained. Federal officials were stunned at how certain Northern California river levees failed. So they toughened the building codes for what constituted a strong levee. They took into account that deep seepage can undermine levees.