California flood control agencies learned in January that the state’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) is making available $150 million for projects aimed at reducing flood risks to urban areas. The Urban Flood Risk Reduction grant money, which represents a portion of the $5 billion approved by voters in 2006, will be distributed through a competitive process.

Even before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, California was coming to grips with weaknesses in the Central Valley’s flood protection system. After Hurricane Katrina, which killed over 1800 residents of New Orleans and caused $100 billion in damages, Sacramento was viewed as carrying the highest risk of catastrophic flooding in the nation. What’s more, the state was still paying over half a billion dollars in damages after a Court of Appeal determined in 2003 that it was responsible for damages from a levee breach north of Sacramento. California needed to act if it wanted to avoid a Katrina-like disaster and massive future liability.

In 2006 California voters passed the Disaster Preparedness and Flood Prevention Bond Act (also known as Proposition 1E), which committed $5 billion to flood protection work primarily aimed at shoring up Central Valley flood protection facilities.

Since 2007 the State has been spending those funds to develop a Central Valley Flood Protection Plan and, through grant programs, to help Central Valley agencies both (1) pay for repairing and improving levees, weirs and bypasses, and (2) improve or add new infrastructure that would provide a higher level of flood protection for development behind levees.

Local agencies in the Central Valley with authority to implement flood projects are eligible for the funding. DWR is prioritizing projects that provide multiple benefits – not just flood control benefits to improve the system’s ability to handle changing flood flows anticipated with climate change. Other benefits may include improving public safety and restoring ecosystems. In other words, the state is trying to encourage flood control agencies to think more broadly about how flood protection projects can contribute to other goals that are consistent with flood protection.

To date the State has spent hundreds of millions on local projects to improve or rehabilitate levees, such as the Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority’s work on the Bear, Feather and Yuba Rivers and the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency’s Feather River project.

Grant applications are due March 9.