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Sacramento BEE article:

PUBLISHED SATURDAY, JUN. 23, 2012

Flood barriers going up in south Sacramento

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Homeowners in south Sacramento are celebrating the revival of construction on a long-awaited flood-control project, hoping it will lift a costly insurance requirement.

On Thursday, a project was approved to boost flood protection along 1.6 miles of Unionhouse Creek. Construction began in May on another project: a floodwall along part of Morrison Creek.

Both are near the intersection of Franklin and Cosumnes River boulevards.

"So far, it's going great," said Barbara Falcon, a resident of the Deerfield-Mesa Grande neighborhood next to the floodwall construction. "We all hear it every day, but we're all happy with hearing it. It's getting done right now, and that's a glorious thing in this economy."


The South Sacramento Streams Group project, as it is known, was begun in 2005 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The goal is to reduce flood risk on a complex of creeks that meet at Freeport.

The creeks once flowed naturally into the Sacramento River, but a century of levee building and urbanization has altered their route and shape.

The creeks – Morrison, Florin, Elder and Unionhouse – were long ago rerouted and channelized in an effort to control flooding and make way for homes.

By 2009, new levees and floodwalls succeeded in removing 25,000 homes in the Pocket and Meadowview areas from the 100-year floodplain, lifting a federal flood insurance mandate.

Other aspects of the project stalled, however, due to complications caused by homes and infrastructure built too close to Morrison and Unionhouse creeks.

There simply wasn't room for larger levees, and new infrastructure complicated the picture. This includes a new Sacramento Regional Transit light-rail line in the narrow Unionhouse Creek corridor and plans to widen Cosumnes River Boulevard.

The cost for flood improvements on Unionhouse Creek soared, exceeding Corps' spending authorization and effectively halting construction for almost three years.

After residents in Falcon's neighborhood complained early last year, the city of Sacramento and the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency found a cheaper solution.

On Thursday, the SAFCA board, consisting of local elected officials, approved that project. It will now seek bids for the $1.9 million job, which is expected to be finished by November.

A year from now, 1,500 homeowners in the Deerfield-Mesa Grande neighborhood will likely no longer be required to buy flood insurance averaging $1,300 a year.

"We're just extremely grateful," said Dana Duncan, a board member of the neighborhood association. "We're the last area in this whole Sacramento metro area that is still in the floodplain."

Streams in the area may be small, but the flooding solutions are complicated.

For instance, the neighborhood's western boundary is defined by Union Pacific Railroad tracks, which sit on a small levee along Morrison Creek. The levee is not up to 100-year flood-protection standards, but it is so close to back fences in the neighborhood that there is no room for a larger levee.

There is also a 20-inch diameter natural gas line along the train tracks that adds another restriction.

So the Corps and its contractor, Four M Contracting of Winters, are building a $5.9 million floodwall that will stand 10 feet high over a distance of 3,300 feet.

I would rather have built a levee. But there was no room," said Marshall Marik, project manager at the Corps. "It was a lot of challenges."

The story is similar along Unionhouse Creek, already narrowed by Cosumnes River Boulevard on one side and hundreds of houses on the other. A new regional transit line and the planned expansion of the boulevard further restrict the corridor.

To provide enough water volume for flood control, the Corps proposed reshaping the channel with vertical sides and a concrete lining. The design required substantial reinforcement. Corps rules also require maintenance roads on each side of such a channel, which was difficult in the confined space.

The project ended up with a price tag of about $40 million.

Local agencies are bound by fewer rules, and SAFCA came up with a cheaper design. By sharing maintenance roads with the light-rail corridor, it was able to retain the V-shaped dirt channel and widen it by 8 feet between Franklin Boulevard and Center Parkway.

To the east, between Center Parkway and Bruceville Road, it will pave the channel with concrete. This will increase flow velocities, effectively allowing the creek to move more water.

The paving, however, will eliminate any wildlife habitat in this part of the creek.

"We can't widen the channel to go back to a greener landscape," said Pete Ghelfi, director of engineering at SAFCA. "In this case, we're pinned in."

A study found little wildlife in the creek, largely because it was straightened and realigned decades ago. It is also routinely mowed for flood maintenance, so habitat is poor to start with. But the study acknowledged the March survey was done at the wrong time of year to spot any rare plants.

The city of Sacramento pitched in about $900,000 for the project, and a similar amount comes from a state grant. SAFCA is contributing $200,000.

SAFCA hopes to award a contract for the work in July, start work in August and finish by November.

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