Stanislaus supervisors miss levees deadline

Stanislaus County officials are trying to determine what, if any, responsibility they have for a quartet of levees likely to be dropped from federal flood maps. That, in turn, could trigger higher flood insurance bills for a handful of property owners.

Three of the four levees, which total about 31 miles in length, protect orchards, farmland and ponds adjoining the Stanislaus River near Oakdale and Riverbank. The fourth levee is on the county's West Side.

Stanislaus Public Works Director Matt Machado said it appeared that no homes, businesses or vital county assets were protected by the levees.

"Two of the levees appear to be owned and controlled by the federal government," Machado said Monday. "The others may be privately owned. We're not sure."

None of the levees is in separate reclamation districts, which use levees, ditches, pumps or other devices to protect land against flooding.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is updating its levee map in Stanislaus County, in California and across the nation. A nationwide review of levees was launched after those in New Orleans failed in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

All levees shown on federal flood protection maps must be reaccredited, meaning those responsible for the flood protection barriers must be able to document that the structures are capable of withstanding a 100-year flood. A 100-year flood is a major event with a 1 percent chance of occurring in a given year.

Stanislaus officials missed an Aug. 29 deadline to give FEMA information about the four levees in the county or seek a time extension of up to two years to respond.

By missing the deadline, FEMA officials said, the four levees likely will be dropped from the new FEMA flood insurance rate map for Stanislaus County. The new map is expected to be released by the end of the year.

"I probably dropped the ball on this in not getting this back to the (Board of Supervisors)," said Stanislaus Chief Executive Officer Rick Robinson. "FEMA should have been contacted."

Machado said the county has received draft copies of the new FEMA map and has 30 days to respond but cannot extend its review beyond that one-month time frame.

"We still have time to comment," Machado said.

Affected property owners, however, still could face an increase in their flood insurance premiums, if they pay them. Insurance is not required.

It wasn't clear Monday how many property owners would be affected, but Robinson and Machado said the number was small.

No money for study, repairs

Robinson said the county has no money budgeted to conduct an extensive study of levee conditions, let alone make repairs to the earthen structures.

County officials said a preliminary review shows that responsibility for the levees likely rests with the federal government and-or private landowners.

"The question becomes," Robinson said, "how many hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars does a county government spend to benefit a relatively few landowners?"

Machado noted that Stanislaus soils can be quite sandy, adding it might be appropriate for the four levees to be dropped from the FEMA flood protection maps so as "not to give people false hope."

One of the levee-protected sites, located east of McHenry Avenue near Riverbank, had been considered as a potential location for a subdivision. But Machado said that plan, to build single-family homes in what today is low-lying orchard land, eventually was shelved.

A second levee near Riverbank, Machado said, protects water ponds operated by the old Army ammunition plant off Claus Road. He said that levee appears to be owned by the federal government.

The levee west of Modesto would come into play only if water had to be drained suddenly from the Delta-Mendota Canal. This West Side levee, Machado said, also appears to be owned by the federal government.

Bee staff writer Michael G. Mooney can be reached at mmooney@modbee.com or 578-2384.