The breach of the Pajaro River levee that flooded the town of Pajaro in March.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Storms 2023: Road to Recovery

As threat of El Niño winter looms, Newsom signs order to hasten levee repairs

Restoring levees is crucial to public safety, but critics say Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order also comes at the expense of rules designed to protect the environment. The move comes after disastrous flooding in the Pajaro Valley and elsewhere amid last winter’s storms.

As forecasters sound the alarm about another potentially wet California winter fueled by El Niño, Gov. Gavin Newsom is taking urgent but controversial measures to prevent a repeat of the devastating floods that befell the state earlier this year.

An executive order signed by the governor this month will streamline levee repairs and debris removal to help protect and prepare communities for another potential inundation. Last winter, dozens of levee breaches around the state sent stormwater rushing into communities — killing several people and causing considerable damage.

Restoring levees, river channels and other elements of the state’s aged flood infrastructure is critical to public safety. But critics say Newsom’s order also comes at the expense of several rules and regulations designed to protect the environment.

“Managing California water by executive order is bad business,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta. “Whether it’s drought or flood, we have to set proper science-based environmental standards and regulate according to those standards for the protection of people.”

Among the items outlined in the executive order are emergency repairs to levees directly affected by last year’s floods, including areas along the Pajaro River, which separates Santa Cruz County from Monterey County, and those along the San Joaquin River and along portions of the Tulare Lake Basin.

Such work is needed. In March, the swollen Pajaro River burst through its worn-down levee, flooding the entire town of Pajaro and sending its roughly 3,000 residents into a monthslong exile from their homes.

Weeks later, water spilled from canals and broken levees into farm fields in Tulare County, spurring the rebirth of the long-dry Tulare Lake and leaving thousands of acres under feet of water, which officials say could take years to dissipate.

Officials in Pajaro said the executive order was long in the making, as politicians in flood-prone regions have been urging the governor to make it easier to protect their communities.

“The governor made clear after the storms that he would do whatever was necessary to help expedite efforts along the levee and basin, and this was our key ask,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend, a member of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency board of directors.

The levee that was breached in March had been slated for an upgrade and new construction when the flooding happened, but the work had not yet begun. With a new threat of storms later this year, he said that every burden removed to make the project a reality “has the potential to save lives and livelihoods in the Pajaro Valley.”

Flooding in Pajaro after a breach of the Pajaro River levee
Flooding in Pajaro after a breach of the Pajaro River levee in March.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But the order will also suspend a number of environmental laws, regulations and criteria — including elements of the California Environmental Quality Act — to fast-track the work.

Among the suspended items are laws and regulations that guide alterations to lakes and streambeds. Certain water quality rules and permitting procedures were also waived to help expedite clearing and maintenance of flood-control channels.

Barrigan-Parilla said such decisions reflect a lack of long-term flood planning and emergency preparations.

“Environmental regulations are always the first to go, rather than doing the hard, long-term work of building water sustainability and flood management plans,” she said.

Deirdre Des Jardins, an independent water researcher and advocate, said similarly the emergency order doesn’t address the larger issue — that California’s flood-control infrastructure suffers from inadequate maintenance and funding.

She called the order “a Band-Aid on just a huge, huge issue of long-term inadequate maintenance of flood-control channels.”

Des Jardins has been calling for significantly more funding to prepare California for severe flood risks, saying state and federal investments are failing to keep up with intensifying risks due to climate change.

“It is going to be expensive to deal with. And the state needs more of a plan. This is not a plan. This is just scrambling,” Des Jardins said.

However, some experts said the fast-tracked rules could make sense when applied judiciously. The onset of the state’s wet season is now only months away, and future storms could bring considerable flood risk.

The climate pattern known as El Niño has officially begun and is expected to bring cooler, wetter winters to some...

“The high flood risk areas that were so dramatically exposed during this last rain and snow season — those are areas where those projects have just got to get done, and they’ve got to get done quickly,” said Mark Gold, director of water scarcity solutions with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “As we saw, low-income communities were disproportionately impacted in such a major way, and we just can’t let that happen.”

Gold also voiced concerns about some of the strategies outlined in the order, including an item that allows for as much as 30% of native vegetation to be removed from stream channels. The rule doesn’t include any recommendations or requirements for how the removed material should be disposed of, meaning it could end up in a landfill, he said.

“We have a state that’s doubling down on nature-based solutions, we’re seeing vulnerability with sea level rise that’s hugely concerning ... and yet, there’s not a sentence in here on beneficial reuse of the sediment that’s removed,” Gold said.

What’s more, the order defers many permitting decisions to the federal Army Corps of Engineers, which helps manage many of the state’s dams, reservoirs and other water infrastructure.

“The feds’ review of these types of projects is generally a lot less rigorous than the state,” Gold said. “And so that’s why this matters.”

Much of the executive order is predicated on the arrival of a second wet winter, which looks likely but is not guaranteed.

El Niño, the climate pattern in the tropical Pacific, arrived earlier this summer and is expected to gain strength as the year progresses. El Niño is associated with hotter global temperatures and wetter conditions in the state, particularly Southern California.

Long-term precipitation outlooks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are currently inconclusive about what to expect in most of the country. However, the agency says there is a 90% chance that El Niño will persist through the winter.

There is reason to expect wetter conditions from the system. The El Niño winter of 1997-98 brought powerful precipitation to California, including a series of storms that ended with 17 deaths and more than half a billion dollars of damage in the state.

The 1982-83 El Niño was linked to near record-setting precipitation in the northern Sierra and one of the state’s costliest flood seasons in decades, which saw decimated piers and thousands of damaged homes.

But in 2015-16, a strong El Niño failed to deliver significant rain, flooding and other anticipated effects in Southern California, ultimately dropping only about 6 inches of rain.

Newsom’s order follows other actions taken in response to this year’s flooding. In May, the governor allocated $17.2 million to help fortify the Corcoran levee, a crucial piece of flood control infrastructure that protects the city of Corcoran — and its sprawling prison complex —from the flooded Tulare Lake.

He also signed executive orders in February and March that allowed the state to reroute hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water from the storms into areas where it could percolate into the ground and replenish aquifers drained by years of drought.

That move also stoked the ire of some environmental groups who said the diversions allowed for lower flows in the San Joaquin River and would likely be harmful for Chinook salmon, among other concerns.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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