Last fall, when the state Legislature authorized $40 million for floodplain restoration, Julie Rentner knew just what she would do with it. Her group, River Partners, would spend more than a quarter of the funds buying a 500-acre dairy farm abutting the San Joaquin River in Stanislaus County.
Then millions more would be spent on removing debris, sheds, manure heaps and levees. They would plant native vegetation, and eventually restore the parcel to its natural state as a woodland and floodplain.
When floodplains like these are allowed to fill with water, they can reduce flooding impacts elsewhere along the river, so the project could protect communities downstream, including Stockton, which is highly vulnerable to flooding.
Rentner said crews of community members were ready to begin the work.
But in January, the money disappeared.
In a move that upset and baffled local leaders, conservationists and floodplain advocates, Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his 2023-24 budget proposal, eliminated all $40 million that had been allocated for San Joaquin Valley floodplain restoration this year.
This year’s floods have highlighted the need for improved — and more equitably distributed — flood protection efforts throughout California. Restoring floodplains, many experts agree, is one of the most cost-effective ways to protect communities from flooding.
San Joaquin Valley lawmakers of both parties and local leaders say Newsom’s budget cut could endanger their communities, and that it signals a disparity in how the state distributes funding for flood protection. San Joaquin Valley communities vulnerable to flooding are largely home to underserved, low-income Latinos.
Sen. Susan Eggman, a Stockton Democrat, said this winter’s storms “underscore the need for significant new investments for flood protection.”
“It is imperative that the legislature reject the proposed $40 million cut for San Joaquin Valley floodplain restoration,” she said in an email to CalMatters.
To former Assemblymember Adam Gray, who rallied for floodplain restoration work in the valley, the governor’s proposed $40 million cut demonstrates inequality in how the state distributes assistance. Gray and several lawmakers said the Central Valley’s low-income, disadvantaged communities often get cut first.
“When money gets dedicated to our region, some of the other regions don’t mind taking from us,” said Gray, a Democrat from Merced who served in the Assembly from 2012 through 2022.
It’s unclear what effect the funding cut will have on future flooding in Stockton and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley. But Rentner said if the dairy farm project had gone as planned, the land could have been partially restored already, absorbing floodwaters and potentially lessening impacts along the river in Stockton.
It remains to be seen if the funding cut will be included in the May revised budget and signed into law in the budget this summer. But California Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot told CalMatters that the governor’s proposed budget, for now, renders all of the floodplain money unavailable.
In addition to the project in Stanislaus County, nine other projects for restoring 2,400 acres along the San Joaquin River had been slated to begin, with their $13 million in funding now in limbo, Rentner said.
“These projects were shovel-ready,” Rentner said.
Restoring a floodplain typically involves removing, lowering or setting back levees to allow swollen rivers to expand laterally onto uninhabited land. This reduces pressure on levees elsewhere, lessening the chances that they’ll rupture. Most of California’s historic floodplains have been separated from rivers by levees and converted to agriculture.
“Levees effectively straitjacket the river and either push floodwaters downstream to unprotected communities or actually bottleneck a river and cause flooding upstream,” said Josh Viers, a professor of water resource management at UC Merced who has studied floodplains for more than 20 years. “Setting levees back gives the river room to roam.”
As scientists, environmentalists and legislators recognize the benefits of floodplains, interest in restoring them has grown across party lines.
Floodplains also offer seasonal foraging ground for juvenile salmon and nesting grounds for waterfowl. And they can help recharge the San Joaquin Valley’s depleted groundwater basins.
‘Nowhere for that water to go’
Mike Machado, a farmer near Linden who served in the State Assembly and Senate for 14 years, until 2008, said the governor’s proposal is one of many examples of the state choosing to fund flood protection projects for wealthy regions but not for poorer ones like the San Joaquin Valley.
“They conduct cost-benefit analyses to determine if the value of what they’re protecting is greater than the cost of protecting it,” Machado said.
“In places like Pajaro and low-lying areas of San Joaquin County, the value of lives seems to be discounted to the value of economic wealth.”
Earlier this month, the rising Pajaro River broke through an aging levee that provides inadequate protection to the Monterey County town of Pajaro, forcing about 3,000 residents — largely Latino farmworkers — to evacuate and damaging about 900 homes and buildings.
Republican Assemblymember Heath Flora, whose district includes the northern San Joaquin Valley, said the shortage of floodplain acreage along the San Joaquin River increases the region’s vulnerability to flooding. He said the near-record Sierra Nevada snowpack, when it melts, could cause even more flooding.
“If we get a warm spring, we are in big trouble,” Flora said. “We have nowhere for that water to go, and it’s coming, whether we like it or not.”
Flora said “it’s hard to understand” why the governor cut floodplain funds that have bipartisan support and could provide an array of benefits — not just for flood control but also creating new greenspaces and recreation opportunities.
“The low-income, underserved communities that the governor likes to talk about … this is their backyard, and so it’s interesting that we say we care about these people but inevitably the projects that affect them the most seem to be the first to get cut,” he said.
“To have (the floodplains funding) stripped away is incredibly frustrating.”
Rentner of River Partners said the sooner the state spends the money in the San Joaquin Valley, the better.
“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.
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.
They also represent potential recreation opportunities. For example, the Dos Rios Ranch Preserve is proposed to become a new state park.
Gray, the former assemblymember, said floodplain restoration is a rare type of public works projects that has bipartisan, almost universal, support because of the many benefits it provides.
“It’s a win for the environment, it’s a win for agriculture, it’s a win for public safety,” Gray said.