“It’s really a fractional downpayment on improvements that we would have reaped the benefits of — even this year,” Rentner said. “If we don’t pay now, we’re going to have to pay a lot more later.”
Explaining why the funding was cut, Crowfoot said the state in recent years enjoyed a budget surplus, allowing for “historic investments … in these multi-benefit floodplain investments.” But Newsom estimated in January that California is facing a budget deficit of about $22.5 billion.
“Then fiscal conditions changed quite rapidly and we found ourselves having to make cuts, and that’s not easy because we’re cutting priorities that we acknowledge to be priorities, which is why we funded them in the first place,” Crowfoot said.
“This does not represent a change or diminishment of our long-term priority to significantly expand floodplains in the San Joaquin Valley and beyond,” Crowfoot said.
The $40 million may be restored in the next budget cycle, he said.
“If fiscal conditions improve, and the general fund improves, it will be automatically restored,” he said. This could happen by what’s referred to as a fiscal trigger process, though it wouldn’t be until January.
Newsom’s office did not respond to questions about his cuts to floodplain funding.
A tale of two valleys
Officials say vast differences in flood control infrastructure in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys illustrate the unequal investments in the two regions.
Along the Sacramento River, the vast Yolo Bypass, which covers tens of thousands of acres, is designed to take on floodwaters from the Sacramento River during and after storms. This helps ease pressure on the levees protecting Sacramento and ultimately reduces the risk of a devastating flood in the state’s capital. The smaller Sutter Bypass serves a similar function.
In comparison, the San Joaquin Valley lacks expansive areas where the river can sprawl.
River Partners is nearing completion on a 2,000-acre floodplain project called Dos Rios Ranch Preserve at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers. But Machado said other projects to restore the San Joaquin Valley’s floodplains have lagged.
While the Yolo Bypass, which runs between Davis and Sacramento, is undergoing a substantial expansion, “there’s a proposal to do the same type of project on the San Joaquin River (that’s) never (been) finished,” he said. The Paradise Cut Bypass Expansion Project, just upstream from Stockton, has not moved past the planning stage. (The project has not been fully funded and is not part of the budget cuts.)
“It’s been, like, 15 years in the making,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, an environmental justice group in Stockton. “We always lose on infrastructure funding here.”
U.S. Representative Josh Harder, who represents parts of the Delta region and San Joaquin Valley in the House, said the proposed cuts endanger a region he called “one of the most vulnerable in the nation to severe flooding.”
“Now is not the time to cut critical funding for floodplain management or any other flood mitigation efforts,” he said.
Assemblymember Carlos Villapudua said the defunded projects were already underway, making Newsom’s cuts even more devastating.
“We’ve already moved the ball down the field,” said Villapudua, a Stockton Democrat. “The planning process takes a lot of time — man hours, labor hours. We understand that he (Newsom) needs to make cuts, but this is the one area he should not be taking money from, especially not right now.”
On March 24, Villapudua’s office asked lawmakers to sign a letter pleading with the governor to restore the funding. The letter has not yet been sent to Newsom as Villapudua gathers more signatures.
“It sometimes upsets me that he (Newsom) forgets about the Central Valley,” Villapudua said.
The threat of devastating flooding in the Central Valley is growing as levees age and erode. Climate change is a factor, too. In a paper published last summer, researchers warned that a large storm could drop three feet of rain in the Sierra Nevada over 30 days, generating floods that cause “approximately $1 trillion in 2022 dollars, making it the most expensive geophysical disaster in global history to date.”
The state is currently spending about a quarter of what it should be on the region’s flood measures, according to a Central Valley plan by Crowfoot’s agency. About $3.2 billion in state-federal funding over the next five years is needed to protect against catastrophic flooding in the region, while the state has spent just $250 million a year. “More investment is needed,” the plan says.
Stockton faces severe flooding risks
Stockton, where 13% of its 322,000 people live in poverty and 45% are Latinos, is grappling with the possibility of a devastating flood. Experts say much more protection is needed.
Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta said at least 17,000 houses in Stockton near Van Buskirk Park are at particular risk of flooding. Nearby a community of unhoused people lives beside Mormon Slough, which nearly spilled over its levee in January.
“That $40 million could have been used to finish up planning for floodplains from Merced all the way to Van Buskirk Park,” she said. “The more we can get floodplains back into use along the San Joaquin River system, the more we can keep people safe from flooding, especially in environmental justice communities.”
Rentner said the cut funding could have already opened up new floodplains to reduce impacts to communities that were inundated in flood events since January. The Stanislaus County dairy farm could have been purchased, partially restored and inundated by now “if we had access to these funds four months ago,” she said.
Homes in Stockton’s Van Buskirk neighborhood sit below the East San Joaquin River Levee. At least 17,000 houses near Van Buskirk Park are at risk of flooding, according to the group Restore the Delta.Martin do Nascimento / CalMatters
Chris Elias, executive director of the San Joaquin Area Flood Control Agency, said upgrading 23 miles of levees would protect almost half of the city’s 320,000 people. The agency is also studying ways to restore floodplains upstream, primarily with the long-awaited Paradise Cut expansion. This tract of land, when inundated, could reduce the river’s flood level by three feet in Stockton, he said.
The levee upgrades and the floodplain work could cost a whopping $1.9 billion, Elias said. The federal government will probably cover most of the cost, while the state is likely to fund about one-quarter. (Newsom’s proposed budget does not eliminate any of that funding.)
But the work is still years away from completion, so Elias said restoring smaller parcels along the San Joaquin — like the many River Partners projects that had funding cut — could increase flood protection for Stockton.
Beyond flood control — wildlife and recreation, too
Benefits of setting back, notching or removing levees go beyond flood protection. “The work creates jobs,” Flora said.
Floodplains also offer habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife, and restoring them is widely recognized as a key component of saving California’s declining salmon runs.
Over the right soil types, flooded land can also create settling basins where water can sink into the ground, replenishing depleted groundwater reserves.